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Wellbeing programming is missing the mark. Here’s why.


Wellness programs have been widely popular amongst companies to attract new employees, improve workers’ health, and reduce overall medical spending. However, a study recently published in the JAMA cautions you that before jumping on the bandwagon, you may want to think twice about how you design them.

Over the last ten to fifteen years, wellness programs have started offering benefits like mental health check-ins, tobacco counseling, and even stress management classes. While these are all undoubtedly worthwhile services, a recent study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic shows that not exercising is worse for your health than smoking, diabetes and heart disease. “Being unfit on a treadmill or in an exercise stress test has a worse prognosis, as far as death, than being hypertensive, being diabetic or being a current smoker," Dr. Wael Jaber, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic told CNN. "We've never seen something as pronounced and as objective as this."

The main point is this: While some wellness programs have been unsuccessful in making a measurable impact on health outcomes, it’s because the focus of these programs has shifted. Once designed to be measurable and with fitness at their core, wellbeing programs are becoming “trendy” and confusing for employees while lacking a strong fitness offering to drive the health and behavior outcomes employers so badly desire. Self-reporting is also leading to some skewed results: The Cleveland Clinic’s researchers weren't relying on patients self-reporting their exercise. "This is not the patients telling us what they do," Jaber said. "This is us testing them and figuring out objectively the real measure of what they do." The self-reporting of physical activity by employees as part of a wellbeing program, or (worse yet) no activity reporting at all, is also less effective in driving results given that there is no accountability factor.

So, how can your company start shifting its wellness programs to be more successful?

  1. Start with a comprehensive fitness benefit, where employers can track verified activity and set various criteria based off budget and needs. With a wellbeing program anchored in physical fitness, studies show the majority of other programs are also more likely to succeed and the health of employees can be most directly impacted.

  2. Offer your employees a range of programs aimed at addressing their individual needs. These personalized plans will make employees more likely to participate and stay on track with their goals.

  3. Award your employees an extrinsic incentive for completing consistent, regular exercise . This is a great way to encourage a long-term lifestyle change, which is when risk factors and health care spending can actually begin to improve.

By only focusing on the latest trends or depending primarily on self-reporting, employers are failing to provide impactful wellbeing programming that will have the results they use as a business case to make the investment in the first place. Companies can have a lasting, positive impact on employees’ lives by improving their physical fitness, and then choose to layer on other programs that appeal to them, such as mindfulness, smoking cessation, stress management, and more. By utilizing rewards and individualized plans with fitness as a crux, you’ll create long-term sustainable habits, motivate your employees to maintain healthy behaviors, and will ultimately meet your goal of significantly lowering healthcare costs. Remember that it's not just about the workout; it's the lifestyle.

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