Underground Benefits Conversations

The time has come for HR executives and other leaders to take private discussions public, which may accomplish several positive things, including spirited debate, innovation and helping younger colleagues join the conversation.

By Carol Harnett

A growing number of people I know consider employee benefits discussions to be . . . uninspired. I hold a mixed opinion.

I believe what limits intriguing dialogue among players in this space is that we -- largely -- whisper our skepticism and less-than-popular opinions in lobbies, the back rows of conference sessions and private meetings instead of on public platforms, both live and virtual.

For me, benefits and benefits design are about much more than defined-contribution versus defined-benefit retirement plans, private exchanges and even beer in the workplace. They can showcase a company's brand -- and its personality -- through a unique combination of organizational design, industrial psychology and behavioral-economics techniques.

The most confident companies and HR leaders I know talk openly about their benefits experiences, including what approaches worked for them, along with what didn't and what might. Janet McNichol, the human resource director at the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, writes an open and honest blog about her triumphs and failures as an HR leader - and that includes her benefits programs and employee health and wellness experiments. And some events -- such as the Human Resource Executive ® Health and Benefits Leadership Conference and a few of the World Congress forums -- feature speakers and panelists who discuss letdowns as openly as successes. But, we need to do more.

Why? Well, first of all, we may die from sheer boredom or frustration if we simply pat each other on the backs in a variety of public settings. While we certainly don't want to emulate the way our Capitol Hill representatives hold debates, we probably would be energized by spirited exchanges from people with different viewpoints. I'd enjoy hearing public interchanges between employers that experienced different outcomes from the same wellness programs; or a point-counterpoint between the Fortune 100 company that decided to move its short-term disability program from voluntary to employer-paid with another similar size business that did exactly the opposite.

Secondly, while some human resource executives share with me that honest revelations about their benefits experiences would mean career suicide, if you don't initiate these dialogues, others who work for your company will.

Case in point: the Wellness Underground. News of this group of wellness professionals questioning how employers dabble in health and wellness initiatives started bubbling up over the last couple of months via social-media channels. The release of its first e-book, If You Give a CFO a Wellness Program, had many leaders in this space nodding their heads in agreement. As HR executives, if you read through the document, I think you would cringe because the tone is almost too blunt and direct.

I didn't participate in the public speculation as to who comprised the Wellness Underground, nor did I challenge its members to step out from behind their veils of anonymity. I did, however, reach out to them privately for several reasons. I wanted to understand their backgrounds and experiences to make certain they were credible. And I wanted to appreciate their need to be anonymous.

After providing the Wellness Underground representatives with some character references and signing a non-disclosure agreement, I can tell you they are who they say they are: a small collection of mid-career wellness professionals from various parts of the industry who "want to be constructively disruptive to traditional workplace wellness."

And, as it turns out, they're not that different from the HR executives who are afraid to engage in honest, public discussions about their benefits failures. For now, they choose to be anonymous because they're worried about the impact of what they're saying on their current jobs as well as on their future careers.

None of the Wellness Underground's proof points - or statistically significant research points -- are any different from what a growing number of long-established researchers as well as health and benefits leaders have been saying for quite a while: Wellness and lifestyle-management programs mainly produce no direct return on investment. Instead, they provide a value of investment. Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, the Seattle, Wash.-based employee well-being and performance company, told me in a 2011 interview that, if an employer is most concerned about employee health and productivity, it would be better served by including a variety of other factors beyond employee health in its wellness initiatives.

These variables include what Albrecht describes as the "best predictors of employee well-being": self-acceptance, managing depression, appreciating life, openness, optimism and positive living. And Limeade's top predictors of employee productivity: job satisfaction, feeling energized, doing meaningful work, ability to grow in their work, a sense of team, positive relationships with other people and belief in the company.

So, with well-respected leaders such as RAND's Soeren Mattke providing the fodder for the Wellness Underground's conversations, my concern is their need to discuss their interests, well, underground. Perhaps it's because the leaders and executives who are ahead of them in their careers have not led the way by engaging in above-ground dialogue.

Can any good come of public discussion?

I think the ALS #IceBucketChallenge sheds some light on that. The viral phenomenon of celebrities and "regular people" alike dumping buckets of ice over their heads to raise money for and awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- has a large number of supporters and some critics. It also raised discussion of the large cuts to the National Institutes of Health's research budget. Ironically, NIH is the largest source of ALS research funding in the world. Whether you've dumped buckets of ice over your heads or not, chances are you know more about ALS now than you did prior to the public conversation.

I will issue you a different kind of bucket challenge. Let's each commit to at least one public conversation about an under-discussed benefits topic. It can be at an internal meeting, on social media or on a conference stage. Perhaps this commitment will help drive younger leaders to come out from the underground and join us.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


Aug 25, 2014
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