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Coaching Millennials on Health  

New research finds millennials more open than other generations to having their managers play an active role in encouraging them to get healthy. How can HR make the most of this opportunity?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
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New research based on a survey of more than 2,700 U.S. employees and their dependents suggests that organizations and their HR partners have an opportunity to engage the youngest members of their workforce-millennials-in discussions and actions involving physical health.

According to the 2014 Consumer Health Mindset from Aon Hewitt, the National Business Group on Health and The Futures Co., 53 percent of millennials are open to having their managers actively engaged with them around healthy lifestyle issues, compared to 47 percent of Generation X employees and 41 percent of the baby-boomer population.  

Tom Davenport, a senior consultant with Towers Watson in San Francisco, says he's not surprised by the data.

"The research is more or less consistent with what I've seen before," he says. "There seems to be a pattern of the millennial generation being comfortable with sharing information and less concerned about privacy. They're generally amenable toward urging from managers, and from companies more broadly, to take charge of their health."

Employers are understandably interested in maintaining a healthy workforce both from the attendance and productivity perspectives, while also keeping an eye on organizations' healthcare-insurance costs. Their efforts-and, importantly, the efforts of their managers and supervisors-can go a long way toward creating a healthy environment for both workers and bottom lines.

Leading by example is one of the best ways to get employees of all generations to change their health habits, says Karin Hurt , CEO of Let's Grow Leaders in the Baltimore area.

"I found the best way to encourage healthy behavior was through role modeling," she says. "When I would have all-hands meetings, I would always put an optional run/walk on the agenda, where folks could join me for a run before the meeting."

Hurt says she was also "very deliberate in serving healthy food and giving folks a break after meetings and before dinner so they could work out or relax as needed."

Missy Jaeger, vice president of customer success at Keas, a San Francisco-based health-management platform, agrees that managers and supervisors need to walk the talk.

She says supervisors and managers who exhibit healthy behaviors are more likely than others to find that their employees do the same. This tendency points to an opportunity for HR to measure what may be happening in their organizations, says Jaeger.

"We have some organizations," she says, "that we work with that are actually gathering data on how the organization, or the manager, supports an individual's healthy behaviors."

Jaeger advises HR leaders to consider including questions on an employee-satisfaction survey such as: 'I feel the organization supports me in my health and wellness efforts' and 'I think my manager/supervisor supports me in my health and wellness efforts.' "

Once the data is gathered, she says, it can be reviewed to identify differences-and even correlated with other data such as employee engagement. There is a definite relationship, she says, between the performance of employees who feel they are supported by their managers, and those who don't.

"We see higher performance in organizations where they feel supported by the employer and the overall organization," she says.

While there are certainly inherent benefits in creating a healthy work environment and encouraging healthy behaviors, there are certainly organizational risks, as well.

Concerns may arise, says Nannina Angioni, a labor and employee attorney at Los Angeles-based Kaedian, when employers link incentives to certain wellness milestones, such as losing weight, lowering their cholesterol levels or quitting smoking, because, in order to track their success, the employer must gather employee-health data.

"While the optics of encouraging a healthy workplace are positive," she says, "the practicality of implementing a wellness program can cause employers more problems than benefits," including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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But, says Jaeger, the type of engagement that millennials are looking for from their managers is likely  more related to support, encouragement and the recognition that work/life balance is important than it is to checking on their blood pressure, weight or other actual health outcomes.  

Despite these risks, and in light of evidence that millennials are ready to embrace employer efforts around wellness, companies continue to look for ways to promote healthy lifestyle habits. Doing this effectively, though, requires somewhat of a different mind shift than the approaches taken in the past.

As Davenport says, this is really a bigger issue than fitness fairs, 5ks and health-risk assessments. In fact, he says, where HR should really be focusing its efforts is not on individuals, but on the overall culture and creating an environment that creates less stress for employees.

Too often, he says, organizations that talk about creating a "culture of health" are really talking about creating a culture where people take charge of their own health. That focus needs to shift, he says.

"I want a culture that says 'We want to create a work environment where you can be productive and challenged and engaged, but where the level of stress is manageable,' " he says. Stress, he adds, leads to all kinds of health-related risks. And, of course, in today's competitive, fast-paced and rapidly changing work environments, stress is a constant.

He points to the online review site Yelp as an example of an organization that is engaging their workers through policies and practices designed to create an environment conducive to health and wellness. Their policies are specifically designed not to put the pursuit of work/life balance in the hands of employees, but to take responsibility for creating that environment themselves.

With an average employee age of 28, he says, they have established three important policies: no working on the weekends, no working on vacations, and stay home and take care of yourself instead of coming to work sick. While many organizations may in fact say those same things, he notes, few actually put meaning behind the statements by putting them into practice and requiring them.

Focusing on the broader organizational culture, Davenport says, is the place for HR to start in ensuring that health and wellness is real and not just window-dressing. While both employees and managers play a role in the success of any program, "if it doesn't start at the top and if it's not embedded in the culture, real change is not likely to occur regardless of how open any generation may be to their managers' influence."

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