Benefits Column

The HR Leaders' Benefits Challenge

HR leaders are uniquely positioned to champion both the benefits and challenges of health-related change. But as I was recently reminded during my attempt to eliminate dairy products from my diet, the efficacy of their efforts can be greatly enhanced when they're able to incorporate personal experiences into their communications.

Monday, February 14, 2011
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I've always tried to "lead by example." I even delivered a webinar for Michelle Braden's Emerging Leaders series several months ago on the topic of, "Benefits, Leadership and Health: Can a Leader Make a Difference?"

In that presentation, I quoted from a blog post by Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, on his first bike-to-work experience. I admired Albrecht's bravery in admitting how challenging he found his two-wheel commute.

Albrecht's confession set some wheels of my own turning. Was I really leading by example?

I generally do all the things you're supposed to do around benefits and health, but -- to be honest -- it's not that hard for me. I come from a family where we're hardwired to eat well, play, not smoke and save for a rainy day.

But, my self-questioning wouldn't stop.

Ultimately, I captured my thoughts in a column -- as well as a number of video blog posts -- on whether I was acting like a bully of sorts in promoting activities that were hard for others, but easy for me.

Bob Merberg -- one of my virtual colleagues and founder of the Employee Wellness Network -- posted a video response suggesting that we should, perhaps, take a different view on leadership.

"There is a place for walking the talk," Merberg said. "The question is, 'What is the talk?' "

It was an a-ha moment. Perhaps leadership is about taking on a challenge that's personally difficult to execute.

After a couple of months of what James Prochaska, father of the transtheoretical model of behavior change, would call pre-contemplation and contemplation, I made a decision. On January 1, I would give up dairy products for 21 days.

Now, maybe this doesn't sound challenging to you, but -- for me -- milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream are staples in my diet. These foods are embedded within the culture where I grew up. It's also almost impossible for me to prepare a meal or snack without these calcium-rich provisions.

The other challenge for me was that I had no underlying need to make this change. I'm not lactose-intolerant -- genetic testing verified this for me. But, I figured that making an undesired change would be more analogous to the experience of employees who we ask to alter behaviors after completing a health-risk assessment.

I also went one step further. I made a public statement about the test I was about to put myself through. This action was meant to keep me honest.

So, what happened? I went through with it. And a funny thing occurred when I decided to turn my back on the dairy aisle. I didn't stop on January 21. In fact, I am still dairy-free today.

Here are the lessons I learned along the way.

* It takes time to decide. It took about six weeks for me to determine if I could abandon dairy-related groceries. I simply couldn't picture how to prepare meals without them. And, keep in mind, that I was making this choice on my own -- no one mandated me to do it.

* Preparation is key. Once I made my decision, I required about 45 days to prepare. I started to wean myself off dairy-products and also plan for how I was going to cook differently and replace calcium in my diet.

* Failure will happen. During my official 21-day abstinence period, I failed twice.

On day one I was making lunch with friends and someone handed me a sandwich with cheese on it. I didn't realize my mistake until I was two bites into the meal. (I took the cheese off.)

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The other time, I was hungry, tired and away from home. I could not find one item on the menu that did not include dairy. I gave in and ordered New England clam chowder and a chai latte.

* Willpower is highly overrated. My friend, John Davis, has gotten me to consider the difference between a habit versus a ritual. For me, a habit is something that is self-directed and, if you set the right conditions, changing it is achievable.

* Support is critical. The challenge comes when other people react to your new choices. My favorite meal is eggplant parmigiana. The ritual -- or social custom -- I share with certain people is to partake in this meal when we get together. Some of the key people in my social network could not understand why I would change something I wasn't required to change.

On the other hand, on January 21, I began a week-long visit with a friend who was both dairy-free and gluten-free. It made it easy to continue my experiment and try the gluten-free lifestyle as well.

By now, you must be asking why I entitled this column, "The HR Leaders' Benefits Challenge."

It's because of something Ben Miller said in last month's column.

"HR leaders are at the front line of recognizing what's going on in the heart of an organization and know how to provide the most accurate benefits for the population served."

I believe that -- more than any other executive in an organization -- the HR leader is uniquely positioned to champion both the benefits and challenges of change. I also believe that an HR executive's willingness to share his or her personal experiences when making a change will strike a resounding chord with employees.

So, consider taking the HR Leaders' Benefits Challenge. As an HR executive -- and an employee -- explain your experience with a personally difficult behavior shift. It can be maximizing your 401(k) contribution or enrolling in the long-term disability plan or even giving up dairy.

As HR leaders, you will not only capture employees' hearts -- you will stimulate their loyalty. And, just maybe, you will prompt them to consider making some positive changes in their own lives.

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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