Worksite Wellness is Too Important to be Boring, Illness-Focused and Timid

Introduction: Worksite Wellness   

Efforts to interest employees in wellness have not been wildly successful. A recent report by Colonial Life & Accident Insurance entitled, Engaging Employees in Workplace Wellness, reflects the problem. Among the revelations from the investigation of worksite programs is that fewer than half of eligible workers participate, often because they don't know enough about the offerings and are unsure how they would benefit. The percentage giving wellness a pass is highest among younger, less-formally educated, lower-paid workers.

Evidently, if you build something that does not appeal and fail to promote it properly, they won't come, despite Hollywood mythology (think back to whacky Kevin Kostner and dead ballplayers emerging in crisp period uniforms from corn fields) to the contrary.

This study deserves attention because 150 million people could be learning about wellness at American workplaces. That number reflects the potential audience for such programs provided as part of health insurance benefit plans. Companies invested about $8500 per employee for coverage in 2011, a little over three-quarters of the actual cost of insurance for each worker. Every year, companies shift more of these costs to employees. On average, the worker share has gone up 45% over a five-year period.

According to the CDC, about 75% of all U.S. health care spending goes for the treatment of chronic conditions. These are the middle and last stage-of-life consequences of poor lifestyles, particularly years of attachment to tobacco use, addiction to food loaded with excessive fat/sugar/and salt, love of insufficient exercise, intake of excessive alcohol and dysfunctional emotional skills for managing stress. All for starters - there are other factors at play, including an inability to find satisfying purposes. There is not much offered at worksites under the wellness banner that at least half the workforce considers interesting, fun, challenging, controversial, engaging and/or relevant. What is on the wellness menu are things people care too little about. 

No wonder half or more eligible employees rush not to show up. I wouldn't attend, either. Would you?


Time to Reassess

The provision of health insurance as an employee benefit is an historical accident that grew as a strategy around price controls during WW II. Companies have made huge investments in these programs, and worksite wellness has been a strategy for several decades to contain the rising costs of the benefit. A lot is at stake both for employers and employees; the consequences of wellness programs could be profound if these investments were  well managed. 

By that, I mean if worksite wellness initiatives were effectively designed, wisely promoted and fully integrated into the workplace cultures and organizational settings. 

This cannot happen at present. Why? Because, as the title of this essay suggests, workplace wellness is boring, illness focused and timid. What's more, workplace wellness is not even wellness - it's all a mishmash of medical management, risk reduction, prevention, employee assistance and preaching against the secular sins and comeuppances of bad behaviors.


A Two Part Plan Toward Worksite REAL Wellness

Part one is to reassign and relabel what now passes for worksite wellness. Turn it all over to medical managers and cease calling it wellness. It is not wellness unless it is focused solely on information and activities that enhance well being for its own sake, not primarily for illness reduction purposes. All this illness reduction/cost containment activity is wonderful and valuable - but it needs to be managed and addressed in another category by other facilitators with different agendas. Nobody expects doctor visits, hospital treatments, medical checkups and so on to be delightful and attractive. That's what wellness programming should be about.

Part two is to introduce REAL wellness at the worksite. REAL wellness would be quite different from but complementary to  the medical offerings that have dominated the menu so far. REAL wellness would be targeted to higher education for more satisfying lifestyles that enhance quality of life in positive ways. The programs would have to be interesting, fun, challenging, engaging and relevant to issues nearly everyone cares about. If some are controversial, all the better. People need to learn tolerance. Besides promoting reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, REAL wellness programming would invite communications dealing with politics, sex and religion. Do that and everyone will sign up - including younger, less formally educated, lower-paid workers.

So tell me - how many employees do you think would find this kind of REAL wellness unworthy their time and effort? Does such an approach sound boring, illness-focused or timid to you?

We need discussion and study about a different agenda for worksite wellness. If worksite managers can offer some positive choices, watch out. Worksite wellness would take off in popularity.  

The thought of it leads me to ask: How are you gonna keep em down on the farm of risk reduction wellness, after they've seen and experienced the Paree of REAL worksite wellness?  

Nothing about the latter is likely to be boring, illness focused or timid.


From Risk Reduction to REAL Wellness

Today's worksite wellness is medically-oriented. It is not positive, nor is it focused on life skills. What masquerades as wellness is, in reality, omnibus tinkering for cost containment. 

Status quo worksite wellness fits several medical categories - illness management, risk reduction, health education and prevention among them. Nothing wrong with any of this, but it's dishonest, a semantic offense, to label it wellness. One problem is that current offerings obfuscate, hinder and delay the introduction of REAL wellness. The 50 percent of employees who refrain from or drop out of programming falsely called wellness think they have experienced wellness education. That is not the case. They have never encountered the real thing. They might well embrace and pursue the authentic real deal. 

I'd like to see a transfer of what now takes place as worksite wellness to medical managers. Call it something like medical management for cost containment. If this were done, there would be no confusion. Employees with medical concerns (e.g., weight loss, high blood pressure, etc.) could be attended and supported by health care specialists; a different set of professional educators would promote wellness as the love of wisdom - AKA philosophy. 


Philosophy on Offer with Worksite REAL Wellness

Philosophy deals with questions, puzzles and mysteries. It involves reflections about existence, knowledge, justification, truth, justice, right and wrong, beauty and validity, among other matters. It does not dwell on medical issues or cost containment. Worksite education that explored the skills needed for philosophizing, skills such as critical thinking, would not be conducted by those whose training is problem amelioration, treatments and cures. We surely need experts skilled in the medical arts and physical health matters. It is all good that worksites make such services available to employees. However, something else has long been missing at the worksite. That would be the very foundation element of REAL wellness - philosophy. 


Why has this not been part of worksite wellness all along? Well, these are not topics for which personnel to staff and design health promotion programs have been recruited. Instead, health has been associated with medical expertise - and thus doctors and nurses and other from healing professions have had the responsibility for promoting health. The results have been predictable. 

Further dimming the chances for REAL wellness education was the fact that the primary goal of having worksite wellness in the first place was (and remains) cost containment. Finally, it might be surmised that philosophy has been barred at the plant gates because reason and liberty explorations might (more likely would) prove controversial. Can't stir things up, you know. Companies have not been anxious to stir any passions and the idea of employees engaging in original thinking that jeopardizes the status quo has always seemed unsettling.


The Benefits of Worksite Philosophy

Philosophy invites explorations about the wide world of the humanities that, while not viewed as health issues, certainly affect quality of life which, of course, is very much a health issue. Want greater participation in worksite wellness? Enrich the agenda - add philosophy as part of the offerings. What could matter more than addressing life's great questions, puzzles and mysteries? 

I believe philosophical topics, entertaining presented, would attract nearly all segments of the work force - women and men, white and blue collar, varied ethnic groups and so on. No longer would younger, less-formally educated, lower-paid workers reject opportunities to learn for its own sake; no longer would worksite wellness be seen as boring, illness-focused or timid. 

How might a company begin the transition to REAL wellness?


REAL Wellness

A good start might be to explore in entertaining ways varied forms of information and activities that could sharpen critical thinking skills, expand horizons, boost enjoyment of life, promote mental endurance and add personal freedoms. 

Tastes vary and inclinations are diverse - there are many and diverse best ways to incite such advances. Experiment. Take notes. Proceed where there are calls for more. 

Urge the organization to provide offerings that enhance well being for its own sake, not primarily for illness reduction and cost containment purposes. Acknowledge that these outcomes are likely pleasant side effects. Point out the differences in unintended consequences with medications versus REAL wellness. Both have possibilities for unintended consequences, but the former are negative whereas the latter unforeseen side efforts are more likely to be of a beneficial nature. Among these might well be added workforce immunities against illnesses, diseases, stresses and the like. Perhaps. Time will tell. 

The great goals of REAL wellness philosophical educational adventures transcend medical and health advances. They include better life quality, a better organization, a better country and more confidence all around that employees will find ways to become even better human beings. 

Philosophical worksite REAL wellness must be interesting, fun, challenging, engaging and relevant to matters that people care about. If some topics generate controversy, all the better. This shows employees are engaged. Everyone must learn tolerance. Besides promoting reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, REAL wellness philosophy explorations must not exclude communications about politics, sex and religion. 

Freedom is taken seriously in REAL wellness. To paraphrase Ingersoll, who was comparing a certain holy book to Shakespeare, it might be surmised that when employees experience philosophy via REAL wellness education, they will behold a new heaven and a new earth. All well-educated company leaders know that risk reduction and preachy health education suffers by a comparison with philosophy. If philosophy could be as widely circulated as what currently takes place, nothing would so raise the intellectual standard of mankind. Think of the different influence on employees between reading about diets and 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear.' The worksite teaches obedience. The man who reads philosophy has his intellectual horizon enlarged.

Evolve worksite wellness in these directions and participation will be assured.

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Donald B. Ardell: Worksite Wellness Can Boost Quality of Life As Well As Reduce Illness

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