We appear to be at a remarkable crossroads regarding the health of our nation.
On one side of the story, there’s the recently published Commonwealth Fund report in which the US healthcare system ranks dead last among 11 industrialized nations – ours is the most expensive and lowest rated. This is not a news flash, but rather an unwelcome reminder of our system’s terrible inefficiencies.
On a positive note, though, we are seeing noticeable movement among our nation’s corporations to step up efforts toward improving the health and well-being of their employees.
Employers have long played a part in the health of their workforce by providing hefty subsidies for insurance, but are now increasingly proactive in promoting health behavior change.
In fact, they are the single sector of our healthcare economy with the most to gain from healthy and productive people, and they are beginning to raise their level of investment and commitment.
Lately, the emphasis has been on wellness, an occasionally controversial topic, particularly when the ROI question is raised. But perhaps more significant is the growing trend toward well-being.
We’re now seeing a fundamental strategic shift In the area of employee health and well-being improvement. The stage is set for a transformation from individual-centered health behavior change initiatives to broader, enterprise-wide well-being improvement culture.
This is a critically important shift. The fact is that the US is losing our global competitive edge, in part because of the relatively poor health of our people. It is well known that our healthcare system is expensive and inefficient, and that many of our people also have detrimental lifestyle habits that can lead to preventable conditions and diseases, and that the direction of both trends is not good.
In our ever-challenging global economy, US companies need high-performing employees – people that can not only get their job done well, but who can contribute to organizational success and growth in many ways.
The real solution to our competitive threats and poor health status is to address the root cause of our health problems and create an environment for people to achieve higher levels of well-being. This can translate to better health and lifestyle behaviors, smarter use of the healthcare system, higher levels of performance and many other positive outcomes.
We are seeing the strategic potential for well-being improvement in a corporate setting and believe that this is integral to our nation’s economic future.
From Wellness to Well-Being
For much of the past decade or so, employer strategies have focused on identifying population health risks and attempting to address them through individual interventions – with mixed results. More recently, wellness has become increasingly popular for companies of all sizes as it adds a layer of “something for everyone.”
The hubbub around ROI for wellness has led to numerous debates and questions about what should be measured, what timeframe is relevant, what baselines should be used, etc. Advocates say that ROI is immaterial – after all, do companies measure the specific value of vacation time or compensation levels or EAP benefits or other resources provided to the workforce?
But wellness has primarily focused on physical health – fitness, nutrition and related habits. It generally relies on a linear process that moves individuals through various gates, usually providing a reward for completing certain activities. It is largely tactical, short-term oriented, and often led by an outside vendor.
Well-being, on the other hand, involves organizational transformation and encompasses the whole person. Well-being reflects continuous improvement. Well-being requires greater internal advocacy and cultural adoption. It takes a long-term view and a committed executive team.
Among the leaders in this area are Gallup and Healthways. Together these two companies have created the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being 5, a scientific survey instrument that measures, tracks and reports on the well-being of individuals and organizations. They have outlined the five essential elements of well-being as follows:
• Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
• Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
• Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
• Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
• Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Several studies have correlated the importance of high levels of well-being to workplace performance and both Gallup and Healthways, among others, continue to study these and other related linkages.
We see this emerging trend toward broader adoption of well-being as real and important. The knock on wellness has been that “it doesn’t really work” – hence the ROI debate. Wellness does have its place, but it is mainly one dimensional, with focus on physical health.
The move to well-being encompasses the whole person, as defined by the five dimensions noted above, which together help enhance our true human potential. Imagine the added economic power of corporations if they were operating with optimized, integrated and energized human capital at all times…!
Engagement and Culture
One of the major challenges with employee health behavior initiatives has been participant engagement. By and large, we are trying to tell people to comply with certain protocols and direct them to improve their health. But human nature and behavioral economics tell us that this is a nearly fruitless endeavor.
Incentives have become standard fare for employers seeking to gain better uptake of the programs they sponsor. But most of this investment is wasted because the extrinsic motivation it generates is short-lived.
True behavior change must be intrinsic. It cannot be “bought” but rather must be experienced at the core of one’s self – and that is where well-being fits and how we can go farther and deeper in driving cultural acceptance.
Well-being is not just a turbo-charged version of wellness. It needs to be an essential component of corporate strategy, embraced at the top and adopted at all levels. It is not a one year “program.” It must become central to the company’s culture.
The CEO and CFO must both believe in well-being for it to permeate the enterprise. When this happens, the Engagement Gap ceases to be a problem, as individuals will be drawn to change rather than being told what to do. As this occurs, the company culture evolves to further support engagement and the two become symbiotic.
As more companies take on the well-being challenge, they are learning that there is no “plug and play” solution. It takes real commitment, investment and patience to do it right. Many employers have a good foundation already, but will have to step it up.
Many solid vendor companies can be extremely helpful in guiding the process – including Limeade, RedBrick Health, and Healthways. As good as they are at what they do, they need active participation of all key stakeholders at the sponsoring employer. The employer will have to address the following areas:
• Business Rationale. Define and articulate the reasoning for this commitment, and convey it to the workforce in a clear and transparent manner. It is a journey all must willing to take. It will go through phases, and through bumps along the way, but if the business rationale is sound, it is a highly worthwhile undertaking.
• Cultural Integration. Well-being is not a program, it is a fundamental business approach. It will require that non-aligned policies and practices be refined and that new standards be set. It may take some strong Design Thinking to work through the many barriers and challenges. Fortunately, much good learning is available from companies that have already made the commitment (e.g. Zappos).
• Smart Marketing. While clear articulation of the “WHY” is the starting point, a smartly designed, sustained communications story needs to flow to the population. It will take different touch points and different messages to address the multiple segments of the workforce population. A marketing process that incorporates Systems Thinking will help deliver a well-orchestrated and integrated set of campaigns.
Well-Being: The Time is Now
There is no better time in our nation’s economic history to undertake the challenges and opportunities of well-being improvement.
Employers can and should be a driving force in helping to improve the health of our people and should be able to earn the economic outcomes that come with a happy, high-performing workforce.
Employers can and should be leaders in promoting positive change and addressing some of the root cause of many health issues by promoting well-being.
The time is now.