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Transforming the Nature of Worksite Wellness: AWR 645 May 2013

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Message Don Ardell, Ph.D.
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Welcome to the 645th edition of the AWR. A case is made for reassigning what exists at companies offering employees "wellness" programs in order to make way for something different, better and vastly needed - REAL wellness.
A few comments are included from peer reviewers, as is the conclusion of an address delivered by Robert Green Ingersoll in 1881
on the entitled The Great Infidel.

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Charlie Chaplain once spoke about Ingersoll, also known as "The Great Agnostic," as follows: In Philadelphia, I inadvertently came upon an edition of Robert Ingersoll's 'Essays and Lectures.' This was an exciting discovery; his atheism confirmed my own belief that the horrific cruelty of the Old Testament was degrading to the human spirit. (Source: Freethought of the Day, Freedom from Religion Foundation, April 16.)

Worksite Wellness  
Efforts to interest employees in wellness have not been wildly successful. A recent report by Colonial Life & Accident Insurance entitled, Engaging Employees in Workplace Wellness, reflects the problem. Among the revelations from the investigation of worksite programs is that fewer than half of eligible workers participate, often because they don't know enough about the offerings and are unsure how they would benefit. The percentage giving wellness a pass is highest among younger, less-formally educated, lower-paid workers.

Evidently, if you build something that does not appeal and fail to promote it properly, they won't come, despite Hollywood mythology (think back to whacky Kevin Kostner and dead ballplayers emerging in crisp period uniforms from corn fields) to the contrary.

This study deserves attention because 150 million people could be learning about wellness at American workplaces. That number reflects the potential audience for such programs provided as part of health insurance benefit plans. Companies invested about $8500 per employee for coverage in 2011, a little over three-quarters of the actual cost of insurance for each worker. Every year, companies shift more of these costs to employees. On average, the worker share has gone up 45% over a five-year period.

According to the CDC, about 75% of all U.S. health care spending goes for the treatment of chronic conditions. These are the middle and last stage-of-life consequences of poor lifestyles, particularly years of attachment to tobacco use, addiction to food loaded with excessive fat/sugar/and salt, love of insufficient exercise, intake of excessive alcohol and dysfunctional emotional skills for managing stress. All for starters - there are other factors at play, including an inability to find satisfying purposes. There is not much offered at worksites under the wellness banner that at least half the workforce considers interesting, fun, challenging, controversial, engaging and/or relevant. What is on the wellness menu are things people care too little about.

No wonder half or more eligible employees rush not to show up. I wouldn't attend, either. Would you?
Time to Reassess

The provision of health insurance as an employee benefit is an historical accident that grew as a strategy around price controls during WW II. Companies have made huge investments in these programs, and worksite wellness has been a strategy for several decades to contain the rising costs of the benefit. A lot is at stake both for employers and employees; the consequences of wellness programs could be profound if these investments were  well managed.

By that, I mean if worksite wellness initiatives were effectively designed, wisely promoted and fully integrated into the workplace cultures and organizational settings.

This cannot happen at present. Why? Because, as the title of this essay suggests, workplace wellness is boring, illness focused and timid. What's more, workplace wellness is not even wellness - it's all a mishmash of medical management, risk reduction, prevention, employee assistance and preaching against the secular sins and comeuppances of bad behaviors.

A Two Part Plan Toward Worksite REAL Wellness

Part one would be to reassign and relabel what now passes for worksite wellness. Turn it all over to medical managers and cease calling it wellness. It is not wellness unless it is focused solely on information and activities that enhance well being for its own sake, not primarily for illness reduction purposes. All this illness reduction/cost containment activity is wonderful and valuable - but it needs to be managed and addressed in another category by other facilitators with different agendas. Nobody expects doctor visits, hospital treatments, medical checkups and so on to be delightful and attractive. That's what wellness programming should be about.

Part two is to introduce REAL wellness at the worksite. REAL wellness would be quite different from but complementary to  the medical offerings that have dominated the menu so far. REAL wellness would be targeted to higher education for more satisfying lifestyles that enhance quality of life in positive ways. The programs would have to be interesting, fun, challenging, engaging and relevant to issues nearly everyone cares about. If some are controversial, all the better. People need to learn tolerance. Besides promoting reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, REAL wellness programming would invite communications dealing with politics, sex and religion. Do that and everyone will sign up - including younger, less formally educated, lower-paid workers.

So tell me - how many employees do you think would find this kind of REAL wellness unworthy their time and effort? Does such an approach sound boring, illness-focused or timid to you?

We need discussion and study about a different agenda for worksite wellness. If worksite managers can offer some positive choices, watch out. Worksite wellness would take off in popularity. 
The thought of it leads me to ask: How are you gonna keep em down on the farm of risk reduction wellness, after they've seen and experienced the Paree of REAL worksite wellness? 
Nothing about the latter is likely to be boring, illness focused or timid.

Philosophical REAL Wellness

Nearly all workers, whether at risk or in top form, could benefit from on-the-job education, especially if the topics dealt with quality of life off the job.

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