Engaging Employees' Families

Organizations seeking to improve the health and wellness of employees would do well to include family members in their efforts. And engagement activities should be designed to support the five dimensions of health -- physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual.

This article accompanies A Culture of Health.

Sunday, May 1, 2011
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Employees' dependents typically represent half or more of an organization's medical costs. They also influence the behavior of employees and the environment in which they spend most of their time away from work.

Moreover, the spouse often makes the family's healthcare decisions. As a result, organizations need to think about the strategies used to engage dependents and to address their unique needs.

Aim for Engagement

Organizations can take a number of actions to engage employees' dependents in their health-and-wellness initiatives. Perhaps the most important is to include dependents in the various offerings designed to support the five dimensions of health -- physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual.

Although activities will vary from organization to organization, as appropriate, dependents should be able and encouraged to:

* Take the organization's health-risk assessment and biometric screenings;

* Participate in education programs, including incentive offerings, on-site wellness programs, health fairs, summer camps, picnics and other events, which can incorporate health-and-wellness themes and activities;

* Take advantage of the various programs that are available through the employee-assistance program;

* Obtain lifestyle and condition health coaching; and

* Receive all educational materials and mailings.

One organization established a summer camp for employees' children. Although the camp engaged in fun activities, like any summer camp, children were kept physically active with health and wellness being a key part of many of the activities. The organization recognized that educating the children about living healthier lives provided a positive influence on the entire family.

Focus groups with employees and spouses help uncover what employees and their families appreciate most -- and least -- and what organizational improvements might be made. Asking for ideas and suggestions sends a powerful message that employees and their families are a valued and integral part of the organization's process for a healthier workforce.

Communicate with Dependents as Well as Employees

Enabling employees and their dependents to optimize their health and wellness requires well-crafted, targeted communications designed to reach dependents as well as the employees. These communications need to educate and motivate dependents to take action and change lifestyle behaviors.

To encourage family participation, communications should be distributed to the homes as well as to the workplace. Good nutrition, weight control, smoking cessation and exercising can be accomplished by positively reinforcing the healthy actions of each family member.

Education about organization-provided tools and events can help a family plan for the best way to get and stay healthy.

The first step in engaging families requires the development of a communications strategy and implementation plan that will help HR leaders focus their objectives, identify their audiences, select which media to use and determine the best communications program metrics.

Key points to consider include:

* Brand the program. Create a look and name for the organization's program that becomes an immediate "good health" identifier for employees and their families. Use the brand on all print and web communications to build recognition and to reinforce the program's message.

Work with vendors to have the brand placed on all their materials as well.

* Personalize communications. Targeted, personalized messages will help employees and their families understand and appreciate the organization's health-and-wellness initiatives and answer the question, "What's in it for me?"

With wellness, the message needs to be targeted to each individual based on his or her health risk/conditions, life stage and/or life event being faced -- recognizing that each individual may be in a different stage of readiness to change.

* Solicit testimonials from the actual experiences of employees and their families. Nothing influences change as much as peer experiences. Get a few families who are willing to share their experiences to serve as "beta sites."

* Communicate and explain all changes. Organizations must be willing to communicate any changes in their health-and-wellness offerings -- both positive and negative -- and prompt the employees to take action, rather than just inform.

Honest, clear and consistent communications will help maintain leadership's credibility and build confidence.

* Communicate from the top to build confidence. The best leaders share their vision, mission and strategies, knowing that employees and their families look to the organization's leadership for information. It helps if the vision and mission of the health initiatives visibly support and align with the external business strategy.

Imagine the impact of a picture of the CEO at the health screening, having his or her blood pressure taken, or the HR leader stepping on the scale during a company-sponsored WeightWatchersÒ meeting.

* Track results. Set up measurements against the objectives stated in the organization's strategic communications plan. Build in evaluation milestones that gauge the effectiveness of the communications and identify opportunities for future improvements.

Good employee communications can foster partnership, acceptance and trust that the organization has the best interest of its employees at heart.

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Current and clear communications about the health benefits, wellness programs, confidentiality of the process and updates on what is what in the media, especially in this age of healthcare reform, can go a long way to keeping up the momentum of the organization's wellness program.

To keep the program current and viable, HR leaders should:

* Integrate program communications with the National Health Calendar and other health information.

* Create a link on the organization's website. Or create a separate health-and-wellness site to provide easy access to a variety of health-information sites, including those of the organization's health-insurance carrier.

* Involve managers and supervisors in the communications process. As credible and accessible spokespeople, managers and supervisors should be included in the communications planning process. They should participate in developing the messages and be trained in the proper delivery of messages to employees.

* Be direct, clear and consistent. Ongoing communications should be simple, straightforward, fact-based and consistent to maintain clarity and avoid confusion.

* Communicate regularly. Reinforcement of key messages will help to make good health and wellness a habit. Monthly newsletters, frequent website updates, e-mail blasts and periodic face-to-face meetings and events help to keep an organization's program in front of its employees and their families. Getting the results of their collective efforts out is key as well.

* Promote the return on investment of all health-and-wellness initiatives. Get and provide feedback on all of the organization's programs. Online pulse surveys, testimonials and case studies, utilization numbers, lower premiums all point to the success of the organization's programs and create further incentive to continue on the road to good health.

Organizations that take steps to fully involve employees' spouses and other dependents in their health-and-wellness initiatives will be rewarded with a healthier, more engaged and productive workplace. The net result will be improved health, productivity and cost savings for all.

Steven F. Cyboran is a vice president and consulting actuary in the Chicago office of Sibson Consulting. He leads Sibson's Healthy Enterprise Initiative and has been actively involved in a variety of projects focusing on cultural transformation. He can be reached at 312.984.8558 or

Nenette Kress is a senior vice president and national practice leader of Sibson Consulting's Communications Practice. She has more than 25 years of experience in creating and managing communications services in both consulting and corporate environments, giving her a unique customer-focused approach to communications. She can be reached at 212.251.5165 or

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