Dos and Don'ts of Health Coaching

Thursday, May 1, 2008
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Health coaching is an important aspect of any health-promotion program. Done well, it will be a catalyst for a healthier and more productive workforce.

What is health coaching? It is the process of support, guidance and encouragement for helping people make and sustain health improvements in their lives. When offered as a part of a health-benefits package, the biggest challenge is getting employees engaged and keeping them engaged over time.

Companies that realize engagement rates between 60 percent and 75 percent are capturing the greatest return on the health-coaching investment.

Essential Elements

To achieve the level of employee engagement that will yield the biggest results, the following elements of a health-coaching program should be considered when offering this benefit to your employees:

* Patient-Centric Focus. In health coaching, this means the participant's values, readiness to change, barriers to progress and personal goals are at the forefront of any coaching intervention. Utilizing coaches trained in motivational interviewing skills, such as reflective listening and empathy, while maintaining a focused and action-oriented interaction helps an employee explore and resolve any ambivalence towards a healthier lifestyle.

* Face-to-Face Approach. A relationship between the employee and coach, with the same coach every time, helps the process and outcomes of the program. Building a trusted relationship with a coach, much like in mental-health counseling, encourages accountability and commitment that cannot be replicated through a traditional, remote call-center approach. The style of coaching should be focused, goal-oriented and tailored to the unique needs of the individual.

* Rapid Cycle Change. Participants should be encouraged to take small, actionable steps that they are comfortable with and ready to incorporate into their lives. The steps or strategies that work are built upon and those that do not are eliminated. The emphasis is on a continual cycle of improvement toward achieving health goals.

* Program Incentives. Incentives should reflect the overall health goals of the organization and be significant enough to drive optimal participation beyond the well population. Integrating the incentive structure with the health-plan design provides a cohesive package to present to the employees. For example, you may make contributions to a health-savings account for participation in the health assessment and additional contributions for coaching participation. 

* Communication. Communication planning and strategies must fit the unique corporate culture, have senior-leadership involvement and set the tone and energy that affirms the commitment to the program. The communication plan should incorporate all media (paper, site posters, Web pages, e-mail, and snail mail); be sent at the appropriate frequency; and have a strong, impactful message to reach the employees who will benefit most from health coaching.

* Technology to Support Change. Your employees should have access to a personal health record that is designed to monitor goals and track changes over time. Access to health content and interactive health tools, all integrated into a clinical system for access by the coach clinician, and for sharing with his/her physician, gives the participant additional support outside of the coaching sessions.

What Not to Do

There are also some common problems that can hamper health-coaching initiatives:

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Structure it as One-Size-Fits-All. Health coaching should begin with an understanding of the needs of each individual and work to help the person achieve their own personal health goals.

Make Scheduling Difficult. Easy and convenient access to the health coach, as well as having time during the work day to utilize these services, should be incorporated into the overall plan for providing coaching services.

Make it Mandatory. The better approach is to provide a meaningful incentive structure and support it with communication that will attract participants to the program.

Take a Punitive or Coercive Approach. Any coaching that is confrontational, aggressive, argumentative or coercive will cause more harm than good. Any short-term gains will be offset by mistrust and misgivings that are counter productive to the goals of a health coaching offering.

The six essential elements for health coaching combine to drive value -- both in health improvements and in cost savings -- in your organization. And perhaps the biggest must do in any health-coaching program is to celebrate the successes along the way.

Your employees will be excited to hear how the program is working, and your organization will benefit from a healthier and more productive workforce.

Charles D. Reuter is president of Marathon Health, one of the leading providers of onsite primary care and health coaching services. The Marathon Health coaching model incorporates the six essential elements for a successful health coaching program and typically results in a 70 percent engagement rate for its clients. Reuter's primary focus is helping employers leverage the benefits of the onsite health service delivery model and appropriately integrating onsite solutions into each client's health and productivity management strategy and platform.

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