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Benefits Column

Am I a Wellness Bully?

Instilling shame and guilt when rolling out wellness initiatives -- even if it's unintended -- won't succeed as well as offering incentives, acceptance and an atmosphere of fun. Removing candy and doughnuts from work areas can't hurt, either.

Monday, November 22, 2010
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I watched two parts of my life collide a few weeks ago. It was that moment we all dread -- watching how people you know from one set of circumstances react when they encounter people you know in a different way.

This is how it played out.

A colleague and I escaped the usual workplace interruptions by heading to a local cafe with wireless service. During our time there, several people came over to greet us. My friend's acquaintances would exchange the usual pleasantries. My visitors, instead, explained their food choices -- most with a tone of regret and several apologies.

After a former co-worker lamented her bag of chips, Jennifer looked at me and said, "I'm running through my head right now everything I ever ate in front of you."

Before I could respond, she added, "Why is everyone afraid of you?"

I didn't know what to say.

Jennifer is a friend I met a year ago. How could I explain the countless presentations I gave over the last dozen years on Americans' poor lifestyle choices? Is there a defense I could make for using guilt playfully? Does doing something to promote the greater good excuse how that action makes people feel?

I only had one response, "I think I may be a recovering wellness bully."

Stories on bullying are everywhere. I researched various viewpoints and a statement on Wikipedia caught my eye.

"Bullying ... involves repeated acts over time attempting to create or enforce one person's (or group's) power over another person (or group)."

My experience at the cafe reinforced something for me. I, obviously, impacted the people who participated in my presentations. And the impact was long lasting. However, instead of facilitating life-long behavior change, I instilled shame.

Is that the kind of power I want to wield?

Life has a way of weaving a pattern. A few days after seeing my guilty friends, I caught myself dispensing advice I've received as well. "You can't expect your boyfriend to change," I said. "Accept him for who he is."

We can't change the people in our most intimate relationships. Can you, as an HR executive, use your power to alter the people whose salaries you pay?

In the spirit of the holidays and the upcoming pound or two of weight many of us will gain and never lose, I turned to Rebecca Regnier for advice. Rebecca is a humorist, former television reporter and anchor who writes a blog called, Does This Blog Make Us Look Fat?

"You can't take a macro-approach to a micro problem," Rebecca counsels. "Your weight is so personal that, when an employer rolls out a big corporate effort, it feels monolithic instead of personal."

Rebecca lists five ways employers can help workers who are trying to lose weight. You can extend several of these strategies to employees trying to make other types of lifestyle changes.

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1. Incentivize. Medical research and any season of The Biggest Loser demonstrate that rewards work when it comes to motivating people to lose weight. Companies can't afford to give out thousands of dollars in fabulous prizes, but tangible rewards work. Weight Watchers gives out a gold sticker when you lose 10 percent of your body weight. You could buy your own sticker, but getting an external reward motivates people.

2. Get the candy bowl, free doughnuts and pizza out of the work area. Most dieters will tell you that their best efforts are easily thwarted by junk sitting in a bowl next to their cubicles. Encourage the goodies to be in the break room instead of next to someone who is trying to avoid eating the doughnuts.

3. Acceptance is an important part of long-term success. Set up an environment where employees don't quit on quitting. Encourage employees to start their diets every Monday.

4. Remember -- this is personal. Each individual person has to decide why -- and when -- it is important to change his or her behavior.

5. Have fun. Work -- and losing weight -- is serious enough. Give your employees something light-hearted to read for support. Rebecca recommends her blog for that. She says it's known to make you thin, happy and much better looking after each visit.

Acceptance and fun sound more persuasive than power and guilt. Perhaps the next time I run into former audience members eating high-calorie foods I can say, "It gets better."

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.

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