14 Reasons Many Corporate Health and Wellness Programs Fail
Corporate health and wellness programs are more popular than ever. We say they fail when they fall short of accomplishing their goals and objectives. Failure can be defined in many different ways.
For example, a corporate health and wellness program could be considered a failure if it did not reach its goals of improving employee health and lowering healthcare costs. But a wellness program that is designed to improve employee morale could be successful if it results in improved employee morale. Failure and success in any wellness program depends on the goals of the program.
Most corporate health and wellness programs are started because employers want to help employees stay healthy and they would like to spend less on health care. Well-designed employee wellness programs work. There is an enormous amount of published scientific evidence that supports the impact of the best wellness programs.
In this blog I’m going to focus on the programs that fail to improve health and reduce medical care expenditures.
Unfortunately, not all wellness programs are well designed or organized. They don’t change employee health behaviors or improve health risks, and they certainly don’t reduce healthcare costs.
WellSteps works with hundreds of employers who are doing their best to have successful wellness programs and most of them do. Over the past 30 years I have kept track of the main reasons why some wellness programs fail. I have put this list together in hopes that it will help you make your health and wellness program the best it can be.
14 Reasons Many Corporate Health and Wellness Programs Fail
1. Activity vs Results Oriented Wellness Efforts
Some corporate health and wellness programs are just a series of events, presentations, screenings, and incentive programs offered under the wellness umbrella. These programs are easy to administer because you don’t have to track participation or other data.
Some might consider this wellness focused on fun. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with helping employees have a fun and enjoyable work environment. All wellness programs should be fun; however, if the goal is to improve employee health and save healthcare costs, corporate health and wellness programs need to be well organized and monitored. Just like any other business strategy, you need good data to make good business decisions.
Employee wellness programs that are activity based may lack the organization and data to determine if there having any effects on employee health. Outside of participation, activity-based wellness programs typically don’t produce positive wellness outcomes.
When people use the phrase outcomes-based wellness program, what they are really saying is “We want our wellness program to be based on helping employees attain a positive health outcome, such as not smoking, or attain certain results on biometric screenings.”
In this sense, outcomes-based wellness programs are really just wellness programs focused on improving employee health and health behaviors. This is the goal of most corporate health and wellness programs.
To have a results-oriented wellness program you need to have a well-organized wellness effort. You need to set goals, gather data, have a functioning wellness committee, assess the impacts of your program, and evaluate the overall effect of your program. Here is a great wellness program implementation guide that will produce positive outcomes.
You should make improvements every year with the focus always being on improving employee health and reducing healthcare costs.
2. Overly Complicated Programming. Simpler is Always Better
To avoid failure, your wellness program should be easy to understand and follow. Registration for every event you do should be super easy. Your incentive plan should be simple to understand and painless to complete. Arranging for a biometric screening appointment should be so easy a child could do it.
In other words, to have a successful program you need to remove all of the barriers to participation. The easier it is for your employees to engage, the more likely they will be to produce positive outcomes.
There was a time when most wellness program participants used paper forms and printed materials to report on health risks or to participate in a wellness program. The logistics of creating, printing, shipping, and collecting these materials was burdensome.
For the most part, all of that has been replaced by giving employees access to the web. Whether on a computer or mobile device, it is a lot easier and more pleasant to participate than it used to be. Every corporate wellness program should be available on a computer and a mobile device.
A wellness platform needs to have a mobile app that allows every employee to participate in every aspect of their program. At WellSteps, we are seeing more and more employees participating in our wellness programs with the WellSteps app.
In the very near future almost all employees will participate with a mobile device. Well-designed and easy-to-use apps make it easy for employees to engage in your wellness program. This helps them stay motivated to have healthier lives.
3. Incentives That Use Sticks Rather Than Carrots
There are some companies and institutions that used poorly designed programs and all they accomplished with their wellness program was to reduce employee morale. Here is what they did wrong:
- Ramrodded the program down employees’ throats without listening to their input
- Failed to communicate about the employee wellness program until it was rolled out
- Used incentives that were stick-based instead of carrot-based (i.e. punish poor behavior)
Unless motivated, most employees will have a hard time beginning and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Behavior change is one of the most difficult things that we do as humans.
There are two types of incentives. Negative incentives such as punishments or fines. Programs that use these are using the stick approach to employee behavior. They use punishments and fines to force employees to improve their health. The other type of incentive is positive rewards or reinforcements.
This is the carrot approach to incentives. Just about everyone responds better to positive reinforcement then they due to negative reinforcement. Corporate health and wellness programs that beat their employees into submission rarely get positive wellness outcomes. They almost always lower employee morale.
Despite the effectiveness of the carrots approach to wellness motivation, some employers insist that unless they threaten their employees and punish them they won’t do the right kinds of things. In my 30 years of experience in the wellness industry I have never seen the stick approach work.
I recently published a blog showing all of the information needed to set up an effective wellness incentive program.
4. Use Existing Staff to Design and Run the Program
Some worksites have a very strong focus on employee safety. Keeping employees safe from harm is a priority. These worksites would almost never ask somebody in the HR department to head up their safety efforts. They most often bring in a trained, qualified safety expert.
The same is true for employee wellness programs. Many small to midsized companies will start a wellness program by asking somebody in the HR department to take charge. I’ve listed the pros and cons of this approach below.
In almost every case these wellness program fail. Asking a current employee who already has a full-time job to take on the extra burden and challenge of running a an effective wellness program is a recipe for disaster.
It may start off well, but eventually the lack of time and expertise to manage and administer a comprehensive wellness program becomes apparent. These programs usually fail because of neglect.
There are pros and cons of using internal staff (going it alone).
|Go It Alone|
|Pros||Get to use your own staff.
Don’t have to hire a vendor.
Many worksites have someone who would like to help with wellness.
Get complete control over every aspect of the program.
|Cons||Most often staff will be asked to do wellness in addition to their regular job. Without dedicated support, the program will fail.
Onsite staff will be expected to be behavior change experts. Staff will need training and certifications.
Wellness vendors know what it takes to have a successful program; onsite staffing will have to learn by trial and error.
Are responsible for all aspects of the program including building a web platform.
Wellness programs run by internal company staff have low participation rates and struggle to keep the program going long-term.
Hiring a vendor may be cheaper than building your own program because you’ll have to build it from scratch.
It is unlikely that an internal employee will have the training needed to make sure your wellness program is both legal and compliant.
5. Poor Leadership Support
Many worksites initiate a corporate health and wellness program with limited leadership support. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a limitation on the effectiveness that the program will have. Worksites that have strong leadership support also have a functioning, effective wellness committees that help guide and direct the wellness program.
The wellness committees give ownership of the program to the employees themselves. When you have a wellness committee your employees feel like the program is theirs and not something that management is trying to do to them.
Companies with strong leadership support have leaders who participate in the program in very visible ways. They participate in campaigns, they participate in team challenges, they talk about the wellness program, they are involved in the evaluation and reports of the program and they personally believe in the benefits of having a healthy lifestyle.
Even if a worksite doesn’t have strong leadership support in the beginning there are steps you can take to improve leadership support. In this previous blog post I have provided the complete guide for gaining leadership support. It contains everything you need to get your leadership to support your wellness program.
Every employee benefit was started by company leadership at some point. The decision to start employee benefit is a big one because employee benefits are easy to provide but difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Strong leadership support is always necessary before offering an employee benefit.
If you are going to start a wellness program, you need to be committed to a long-term approach to improving employee health. Treat the decision just like you would any other benefits offering.
6. Fail to Create a Health Promoting Culture and Environment
Adopting healthy behaviors is actually fairly easy. The challenge is to maintain these healthy behaviors for the rest of your life. Worksites that can create health-promoting environments and a culture that supports healthy living will experience a variety of positive wellness outcomes.
We like to help every single client take a good look at their worksite culture using our free tool called the Checklist to Change. Each quarter the wellness committee and worksite leadership pick one thing to change within their environment.
After several years of small, consistent, culture changes, the entire organization begins to look and feel like a place where people want to work and be healthy. The Checklist to Change is delivered through the wellness portal and it helps organizations create a culture of health.
7. Incentivising the Wrong Things
Done correctly, the incentives you offer your employees will motivate them to be healthy. To get the most out of incentives they need to be used in the right way. To have an effective wellness program, you have to help employees adopt and maintain healthy behaviors.
Your incentives should be used as rewards for healthy behaviors. Many times and employer want to offer an incentive just for completing a health risk appraisal. Health risk appraisals are important to track the progress of your program but they have very little impact on health behavior. It would be better to give your incentive to employees who exercise regularly, have healthy diets, and don’t smoke.
These behaviors have a direct impact on chronic disease prevention and the amount of money you spend on healthcare costs. If you are not sure what types of things to reward just ask yourself this question: “What is the most important thing I want my employees to do for wellness?” That is the thing you should reward.
There are a lot of extremely good wellness programs that use incentives. Here is a list of the incentives used by the nation’s best wellness programs.
8. Expect a Static Wellness Portal to Be a Wellness Program
Unfortunately, some employers believe that having an employee wellness website is the same as having a wellness program. They mistakenly assume that all their worksite needs to improve employee health and reduce health care costs is get their employees to go online. A wellness website is not a wellness program.
Many insurance carriers claim to have wellness programs for those companies they insure. More often then not, this program consists of a web portal with educational videos and articles about health and wellness. There’s nothing wrong with this web content. The problem lies in their inability to improve health.
Think about somebody you know that lives a healthy lifestyle. This person most likely exercises every day, doesn’t use tobacco, eats a healthy diet, manages their stress and weight, and maintains some level of work/life balance.
When this healthy person is shopping for healthy foods, making healthy selections at a restaurant, or exercising, they are not online at a wellness portal. They are out in the real world with friends and family making healthy lifestyle choices throughout the day.
The wellness platform might help point them in the right direction but the act of living a healthy lifestyle is what every wellness program is trying to produce and this happens offline. An effective employee wellness program should be a healthy living support tool that helps individuals adopt and maintain healthy behaviors and it should use the best behavior change science to accomplish four objectives:
- Educate and create awareness
- Teach health promoting skills and tools
- Create healthy culture and encourage social support
These four objectives are the foundation of a successful wellness program that is based on behavior change. You can learn more about this behavior change process here. This behavior change model tells us exactly what features the best worksite wellness programs should have if they are to be effective.
9. Poor Communications
Today, more than ever, there are a lot of things competing for our attention. Your wellness program will need to be communicated in multiple ways and at multiple times if it is going to be effective. Once you have your effective marketing materials in place you need to get it in front of your employees. The days of just hanging up a poster are gone.
You are going to need to use email, printed materials, newsletters, your website, posters, tabletop tents, meeting announcements, staff meetings, text messaging, Facebook, new employee orientation, calendars, streaming video, and my favorite—spouses and significant others.
You may not have success getting the employee to come to your wellness program but your chances go way up when you target your employees’ spouses and significant others. Peer pressure from spouses and significant others can be a significant driver to engagement and without it your programs engagement will suffer.
Wellness program participation is really nothing more than selling. We’re selling the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
10. Don’t Include Spouses and Significant Others
Unless you live on a deserted island all by yourself, your health behaviors are influenced by friends and family. A good employee wellness program will communicate and invite your friends and family to participate with you.
Humans are very social creatures. We depend upon each other for many things, including our attempts to be healthy. Spouses and significant others are perhaps the most important part of a successful behavior change effort. It is possible to change behaviors without the help of others, but it is extremely difficult.
It is easier to be healthy when someone is joining us on this journey. Social support can include more than just spouses and significant others. It can include coworkers, professional colleagues, friends, neighbors, church groups, and even pets. Yes, a dog can provide an enormous amount of encouragement and support for taking a daily walk.
Dog owners know what I’m talking about. Dogs love to go for walks and dog owners feel obligated to take them. I call this puppy peer pressure.
11. Don’t Have a Functioning Wellness Committee
Every successful wellness program has a wellness committee composed of a representative sample of employees. Having a committee will improve your programs participation because it gives your employees a sense of program ownership. When they feel like they have control and say in what happens and how it’s done, all of a sudden the program becomes their program and they are inherently obligated to participate.
You will need to keep some control over the direction and administration of your wellness program, but try to incorporate some of the ideas and suggestions that your employees may have. Some of the ideas may not be very good, but others can easily be implemented into your yearly wellness calendar. Your program will get a lot of mileage out of these employee-driven program ideas. Your wellness committee can also help to promote the intrinsic rewards and motivation that come with participating in the program.
An effective wellness committee helps drive the wellness program from the bottom up, not from the top down, and that sense of ownership does a lot to impact morale and enjoyment. Your wellness committee can also help communicate the program. Don’t forget to acknowledge them when the program is successful because without the wellness committee, you may not be successful.
12. Keep the Wellness Program in a Silo.
Every employee wellness program manager is doing his or her best to have a successful program. Sometimes wellness programs are managed in isolation to everything else that is going on within an organization. When budget cuts happen, and they will, stand-alone departments and programs will be some of the first ones to be eliminated.
If you build and administer your wellness program as an independent and unconnected effort within your organization, you and your wellness program will be vulnerable. If your wellness program is not fully integrated into your organization at multiple levels and across multiple departments, your wellness program seems less important.
Here are a few things you can do to make sure your wellness program is integrated throughout your organization.
- Every wellness program should create a wellness committee. 7 to 12 individuals from across the organization should be invited to participate in your wellness committee. They should provide input, guidance, support, and ideas to help keep your program going. More importantly, they give you access to many departments and branches within your company.
- Many departments are naturally connected to your wellness efforts. Safety, HR, benefits, marketing, medical, and IT all have some overlap with your efforts in wellness. Include someone from these departments on your wellness committee. Reach out to them and offer to help them with their work. Likewise you may need some help from them.
- Include a benefits-based reward as part of your wellness incentive plan. When your employees participate in wellness, offer them a discount on their insurance premium, a contribution to their HSA, a paid day off, or some other reward that is directly tied to their benefits. When companies use a benefits-based incentive strategy, the motivation to participate increases significantly. Companies with a benefits-based incentive program typically have 30% higher program participation.
- Continually work to cultivate strong leadership support for wellness. At first glance, this may seem impossible, but it’s not. I have previously blogged about how to cultivate senior leadership support for wellness. In this earlier blog I have identified several steps you can take to get your senior leaders to not only participate in your wellness program but provide ongoing, visible support for everything you do.
Follow these steps and your wellness program will begin to work its way into the very fabric of your organization. When that happens, wellness becomes part of your workplace culture and that’s when you start to enjoy the big benefits of having a wellness program.
13. Treat the Wellness Program as a Perk, Not a Benefit
Benefits like health, dental, vision, life, and disability insurance are non-wage compensations on top of your wage or salary. They are powerful tools employers can use to recruit and retain employees. They require long-term commitments from leadership and they are strategic. Perks, on the other hand, like vacation time, flexible work schedules, free food, or a company car are discretionary; they are extras that can be shared with and removed from employees with little effort.
Perks are changing and transient, while benefits tend to persist. Depending on how a wellness program is perceived, it can be a benefit or a perk. If you want a wellness program that is a perk, you don’t need to worry about reaching any goals or producing positive outcomes. In fact, if wellness is to be a perk, you can do pretty much anything you want under the guise of wellness. If, however, you want wellness to be a benefit, be prepared to support the program for many years. Commit to helping all employees participate and reward them for doing so. When wellness is a benefit it has a purpose and strategy behind it. Here are a couple examples of wellness offered as a perk and wellness offered as a benefit.
|Wellness as a Perk||Wellness as a Benefit|
|Wearable Fitness Tracker||Buy and hand out fitness trackers to your employees||Provide incentives for those who demonstrate regular physical activity, Don’t buy and give them away, have employees bring their own or offer a discount. Use a wellness platform that will sync with the devices for easy data collection. Reward employees who are active or use their devices in team-based exercise competitions.|
|Healthy eating||Hand out restaurant gift cards||Work with your cafeteria manager or vending machine vendor and offer price discounts for healthy foods. Complete the Stop and Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide campaign and teach employees how to eat out and eat healthy.|
|Fitness||Pay for gym membership||Pay for gym membership but use gym participation data to reward employees who exercise regularly. Offer a health insurance premium discount to those who are regularly active.|
14. Do Poor Program Marketing
I spent 11 years in college as a student and another 20 years as a professor. We talked a lot about behavior change models, processes, and strategies. I’m sad to admit it, but now that I work outside of the Ivory tower, I have discovered the truth about our world. Human behavior is greatly influenced by marketing.
That’s right, good old-fashioned marketing has a big impact on the way people live their lives. And well-designed marketing has an even bigger impact. To get your employees to engage in your wellness program you need to have effective marketing and this consists of three steps: 1. use written words (compelling copy) that motivate people to act, 2. offer something of value, and 3. include a call to action: the thing you want the person to do.
Use Compelling Copy
The messaging and information we communicate with our employees will make a big difference as to whether or not they participate. People will participate in your program if you help them solve a problem. These are not your problems, your worksites problems, or your CEOs problems. These are personal health and well-being problems that most people struggle with.
Here are a few examples of problems that your employees want help solving:
- I want to lose weight; I want to be more fit; I want to improve my sleep.
- I would look good for my 30th year high school reunion.
- I would avoid chronic diseases.
- I don’t want to develop diabetes.
- I want to be able to be active and spend time with my grandkids.
- I want to be able to travel and be involved in my community when I get older.
- I want to feel good.
These are the problems your wellness program should be solving. These are the real, personal, challenges that most of us face. When you offer to help me resolve my challenges or make my life better, I’m listening and I’m interested in what your wellness program can do for me.
Offer Something of Value
If I participate in your wellness program, what am I going to get out of it? Obviously this could include the small and benefits-based incentives you are planning. But this also includes the benefits that they will get when they adopt and maintain a new healthy behavior. When your employees participate in your programs they need to know exactly what’s in it for them. Better health, lower weight, better tasting food, the need for fewer medications, less stress—you get the idea. Maybe they’re looking for hope, friendship, or just plain happiness.
Whatever you are doing in your wellness program, you need to communicate what the benefits will be. This is how we offer them something of value. As your employees give you their time, effort, and undivided attention, you need to carefully explain to them what they will get in return. If what you are offering is of sufficient value, they will engage in your wellness program. Think of it as a contract between your wellness program and your employee. The wellness program will offer certain benefits if the employee will engage.
Include a Call to Action
This is the easiest part of effective marketing, but it’s the one we most often forget. Tell your individual employees exactly what you want them to do: register today, sign up now, join us, get screened, take the HRA, or walk at lunch. Tell them what you want them to do and then tell them again. You’ve written compelling copy and you have their attention, you’ve clearly stated your value proposition, and they know what they can get out of this program if they engage.
Now tell them exactly what you want them to do. These three steps seem pretty simplistic and it is sometimes easy to dismiss them as too elementary. But after 10 years of experimenting with hundreds of thousands of employees, WellSteps considers these three steps to be our marketing commandments. Every communication we make with employees is driven by this process. To help you with more examples and more ideas, we made an infographic that you can use and share with others that provides even more detail about how to implement effective marketing steps in your wellness activities. You can get it here.
Put Your Marketing Efforts All Together: Time for a Quiz
Below is one of the posters that we use for our Stress-Free campaign. It shows these three steps as they actually appear in our marketing materials. Can you identify the three elements of effective marketing?
The compelling copy includes the question, “Stress-free?” followed by “Feel less stressed now”. That’s the compelling copy. The value proposition is “Learn simple steps to reduce the stress in your life” and “When you finish, you could win a $50 gift card!” The last step, the call to action, includes the words, “Join us for stress free!” and “Register at WellSteps.com/welcome”.
Every WellSteps behavior change campaign uses the same formula. Every webinar that we share with the public has an announcement that uses this same formula; every email and every text message that we push uses this same formula. It is a key reason why our participation across hundreds of companies is greater than 77%.
It takes a lot of hard work to have a successful wellness program. The best wellness programs produce dramatic savings in healthcare costs and improvements in employee health.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by what is required for success. Even the best wellness programs take years to become excellent programs.
Rather than get overwhelmed at what is required, start by picking just one item on this list, and before you know it you’ll have an excellent wellness program.