Creating a Culture of Health

Speaker at upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference lauds some of the progress made toward adopting healthy corporate cultures, but laments the lag even more.

Thursday, April 4, 2013
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As corporate wellness is being increasingly recognized as key to productivity and success, so too is the need to change the corporate culture if such a commitment is to be supported and sustained.

Indeed, for every organization choosing to create a healthy workforce, there is a unique set of values, rule of conduct and method of communication that needs to be understood fully by top leaders, as well as benefits and HR professionals, or wellness buy-in will simply fall flat.

In her session at the upcoming Human Resource Executive ® Health & Benefits Leadership Conference™ in Las Vegas, entitled "Social Wellness and Creating a Culture of Health: Four Companies, Four Technology Solutions," Colleen Reilly, president and founder of Aurora, Colo.-based Total Well-Being, will invite four HR and benefits practitioners from different industries to share what they've learned from this cultural self-identification process and how it's enhanced the wellness efforts at their companies.

Two of the panelists in the session, slated for Wednesday, April 24, at 9:45 a.m., are from client companies -- Melissa Yoakam, benefits manager for Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Julie Bengston, vice president of people resources for Sage Hospitality -- "so I know their stories going in, and I know how very different those cultures are," Reilly says. The experiences of the other two panelists -- Heather Brazee, senior benefits analyst for Herman Miller, and Jill Ballard, wellness program manager for Mutual of Omaha -- will no doubt be "just as distinct," she says.

Reilly herself has been an advocate for improved organizational health and wellness for more than 14 years. Prior to establishing her consultancy, she was the director of wellness and benefits at Nelnet, a Lincoln, Neb.-based education-planning and finance company. She also worked with Fortune 500 companies as a health-strategy consultant at the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic.

She spoke recently with HRE Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch about her upcoming session, what is needed to improve corporate cultural awareness, and what's enhancing and hindering the nationwide corporate-wellness movement in general.

Better incorporating wellness into corporate cultures to cut costs and increase productivity has been a prominent point of discussion for several years now. What are some of the latest best practices -- under way or under discussion -- that have been introduced to better execute this goal, things that may come up in your session?

Employers are moving to a health/well-being-and-productivity culture. The more progressive, forward-looking organizations are looking not just at biometrics, but at understanding and promoting the well-being of their workforces, too. They're seeing the merit in promoting programs that show employees their employer cares about them.

Think about it. If a company is looking at an employee's body-mass index and not looking at his or her overall life situation, then wellness won't work. If workers are feeling devalued by their employer all day long, they go home and have no resilience against bad health habits, no true impetus to change their eating or smoking behavior. They need the full supportive environment at work in order to succeed in their lives.

We're starting to see employers successfully change their cultures by capitalizing on the whole social-media network. We're finding the difference is astounding between people trying to go through weight-loss programs without social-media support and those getting that online and peer support -- like being able to contact someone who might want to go on a walk with you in a few minutes, or getting recognition from team members for achieving a wellness goal.

Two panelists -- Julie Bengston from Sage Hospitality and Melissa Yoakam from Chipotle -- both plan to share stories about how they're working to make healthy workplaces fun again, so wellness is more of a pull, not a push. At Chipotle, for instance, they're starting to see employees step up to participate, not because HR says they need to or because their premium will go up if they don't, but because it's fun. (Example of how Chipotle made wellness fun is coming.)

In addition to making it more fun, are other approaches emerging in the wellness arena to enhance commitment and engagement?

Employers are just starting to buy in to what I call the "three e's" -- engaged, energized and empowered. The idea is this: You've got to get people engaged, get them off the couch, if you will. Then you need to sustain that motivation. Getting them off the couch requires some kind of carrot, or extrinsic motivation. But if you stop there, so will they. You need to now help them move from the extrinsic to the intrinsic motivation, where they want to do this, they're energized, they want to join their friends in walks or wellness competitions. Lastly -- and only after they've moved through the first two "e's" -- they can move into being empowered; they've got the skill set, the know-how, the support system; they become empowered individuals and take responsibility for their lives and well-being. So many companies are not there yet at all in terms of entirely empowered workforces. There are just a handful of companies now into the energized and empowered phases.

What approaches are companies taking to determine where they are on this wellness spectrum?

More and more employers are moving towards results-based wellness. Now that more people are participating and aware, their employers are getting more interested in moving the needle, wanting to see metrics-based outcomes. Interestingly, the most successful companies moving into this have also deployed social networking, gamification, goal-setting and the like. And I would stress that, when it comes to establishing wellness goals, this has to be done in the right way, because setting goals the wrong way can shut an entire wellness program [and health-focused culture] down.

Can you give me an example of a right way and a wrong way to implement goal-setting in a wellness program?

For example, if your population is very unhealthy and you require them to reach national guidelines for body-mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, the feat designed to raise incentive may seem too great and they disengage. It's important to review your data and meet your population where it is. For example, perhaps in year one, they need to reach two goals out of the four; year two, three goals out of the four; year three, they reach four out of the four goals. Or, another strategy may be to give a larger premium credit based on the number of health goals an individual meets. This provides an incentive to everyone, plus a bigger driver to reach more goals. 

In addition to destructive goal-setting, what are some of the key mistakes or failures on the part of HR executives and their benefits leaders in the overall healthy-culture quest?

There are probably three major areas in which you can absolutely devalue your [wellness] program. For one, you've really got to make it culturally relevant. The senior leaders really have to be on board, role-modeling, supporting it. And it has to match the culture. For instance, what you do in a high-tech firm will differ dramatically from, say, a blue-collar manufacturing organization. It's crucial how people are communicated with and challenged. In a technology firm with mostly 20-somethings, all of them sharp-witted and well-versed in technology, for instance, you would probably roll out your communications via email or text messages. But, with blue-collar workers, you need to make sure you do this via face-to-face meetings. Blue-collar workers might embrace group challenges, teams against teams, whereas high-tech cultures might like individual-against-individual competitions. You need to know your culture and what works in it.

Another huge pitfall is failing to sustain the communications. Organizations can get really, really excited about launching a wellness initiative and send out all kinds of broadcasts, but then go silent, with nothing else said about it to the end of the year. You really do have to approach your communication effort strategically; figure out what you're trying to accomplish, whether you're trying to convince them of the advantages or simply inspire them to take a first step. Whether you're simply trying to build up participation at work to boost productivity and morale or give them something to change their lives. One good message I've come across to encourage the latter is, "We want to help you create the best you; here are some ways to do this yourself."

Whatever those key messages are, whatever your tactical strategies are that you're using to try and achieve your wellness goal, they need to be threaded throughout the entire year. A good rule-of-thumb I learned back in the late 1990s through research done by the Corporate Executive Council is that, for whatever message you're trying to get out there, you really have to communicate it to employees seven times in three different modes.

Lastly, the third big mistake is in failing to be truly thoughtful and mindful when establishing your incentive design. A poorly designed incentive can create unintended, but devastating, consequences. I know of one company that gave $1,000 bonuses for participation the first year of its program, but then had to scale back after that first year, so they cut it to $50 the next. You can imagine how horribly wellness engagement dropped in year two.

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Can you speak for a minute about how the different cultures of the companies on your panel affect their specific wellness efforts?

A hospitality culture is completely different from the restaurant industry and different from a furniture store. For example, how they communicate with the different shifts and the different locations is critical. Also, the motivational drivers within these cultures will differ [based on demographics and competencies] and that impacts an incentive design. 

Of the four key success strategies you plan to discuss for high engagement and taking wellness to the next level -- senior-leader support, communications, incentive design and technology -- does any one area stand out to you as the most important?

I really do feel they all have to work together. To truly create a culture of wellness, you have to look beyond just health and look at a total well-being approach; you've got to really focus on making it culturally relevant and fun, so you need to be utilizing technology and gamification; and you must use that data from biometrics and health-risk assessments to drive the results you're looking for and really take your culture into one of empowerment, beyond engaged and energized, to where employees really understand and practice healthy lifestyles on their own, for their own reward. It really does have to all work together.

What do you see as coming next on the horizon for corporate wellness and culture change?

More employers will simply be deploying the five key approaches that only some are realizing make the biggest difference. One is moving beyond health and focusing on total well-being to build a healthy, happy, high-performing organization. Another is using technology to make wellness fun and easy and something that can fit into busy lives. We have a lot going on and wellness can't be a chore and we can't be tethered to a computer to be deemed a participant. There are new apps, devices, smartphone capabilities, as well as multi-modal approaches using online, on-site and telephonic disciplines that need to be implemented to reach people in the way they need.

Then, there is the results-based wellness I mentioned before, that not only helps an organization drive results, but also gives employees goals to strive for. Strategic communication is also critical and can really be the key component in this change-management initiative. If employers expect people to change their behaviors, they must, in fact, change the way they deliver wellness and benefits. And there needs to be key messaging throughout the entire life of the program.

Lastly, social networking is the way of the future. People are significantly more successful when they have an infrastructure that supports health as the path of least resistance. When it becomes the social norm to be healthy rather than unhealthy, then change can happen. 

Are there any new developments for better measuring the effectiveness of wellness initiatives and culture change?

There are so many different tools out there; whatever you use, bear in mind there are four ways to truly measure the success of a wellness program: high participation rates in the health assessment and screening, a reduction in health risks, managed and/or decreased healthcare costs and high employee satisfaction, as determined through satisfaction surveys. I know of one client whose satisfaction survey showed the wellness program coming up as the leading source of employee satisfaction.

It's also important to know that initial participation is the key to everything else. If you don't even get enough of a group to participate, you really won't get any of the other results. For the HR executive who just can't seem to get the high participation, I'd have a whole lot of questions: What have you been doing? Have you asked your employees what their needs and interests are?  Have you integrated the wellness and benefits plan? Do you have the executive leadership talking about the program, promoting it and participating in it? Are you communicating it throughout the entire year with key messaging? Have you established your wellness committee? You need to get many others involved in this, because you -- as an HR executive -- cannot change the culture by yourself.

The inaugural HRE Health & Benefits Leadership Conference™ will be held April 22 through 24 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. To learn more about the conference, including sessions and exhibitors, visit


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