Getting healthy, or elseBlog added by Allen Greenberg on October 21, 2013
Allen Greenberg

Allen Greenberg

Denver, CO

Joined: May 29, 2013

There’s an unpleasant whiff to a trend now surfacing in the wellness realm that reminds me of an old “Hogan’s Heroes” episode.

Hogan has to get Klink back into shape or the colonel's commanding officer, Gen. Burkhalter, will send him to the Russian Front. The show’s a comedy but the underlying threat of this episode isn't; it’s the sort of dilemma more of us will likely soon face in the workplace.

No one’s going to be sent to fight the Russians, of course, but we could well be punished by our employers if we don’t follow doctor’s orders.

This isn’t likely to be some quickly-fading fad, either. According to a recent Towers Watson survey, companies are sick and tired of begging their workers to take part in their wellness programs.

The firm’s 2013/2014 Staying@Work Survey spells things out: “Nearly eight in 10 … employers view a lack of employee engagement as the biggest obstacle to changing behavior. Despite offering a variety of health and productivity programs, employers report that actual program participation is low.”

So, many employers are now following Hogan’s lead in trying to get better participation. Actually, Hogan was always pretty much a benevolent sort. He’d advocate for more carrot, not stick. But the tactics employers embrace now are unquestionably punitive, more like what you’d expect from a POW camp guard.

By next year, according to Towers Watson, almost four in 10 U.S. companies will have increased premiums and deductibles, among other penalties, against employees who fail to complete the requirements of their “health management activities.” That figure jumps to 61 percent in 2015-16.

Wellness program incentives have actually proven mostly ineffective over the years. But somehow I doubt penalties will work much better, although they'll probably do a terrific job of building resentment and mistrust among employers and their employees.

Fortunately, there may be a better way, as outlined in the “culture-based” approach Virgin Pulse is now selling.

The company – formerly known as Virgin HealthMiles and a member of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group – underwent a re-branding last month that, it says, included kicking the old wellness approach to the curb.

The old way, it says, typically involved “an overly prescriptive” approach focused on short-term goals. It’s one that didn’t (and doesn’t) work because it treats employees like patients instead of people.

The next wave – call it Wellness 2.0 – focuses on “total quality of life,” the company says. The point is to establish “deeper connections across the board,” Virgin Pulse says, “including physical, mental and social health, connecting employers and their teams with platforms that enable people to make healthy changes and support each other along the way.”
“Employers must show their employees that they care about them, well beyond their physical health. Corporate wellness must shift its focus to engaging every individual and enhancing their total quality of life,” it says.

I’m not sure how all of that manifests itself in the workplace, but it sounds like a great place to work.

Joe Miller, the president of the Wellness Research Institute, wrote on the subject of why wellness programs fail in a commentary that appeared on this site.

“Does the organization truly embrace worksite wellness as a business strategy?” he asked. “Does the C-Level believe that the health of their employees will drive them to be more competitive and is imperative in the survival of the organization? Are health goals aligned with workplace policies and environment?”

There are at least 300 providers competing in the worksite wellness landscape today, Miller said, so whether Virgin Pulse has the right prescription is anyone’s guess.

But, really, the question for most of us is, would we rather report to Hogan or Burkhalter?

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