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11/13/2013
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Its been more than a decade since the Centers for Disease Control first raised the alarm on our twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, and more than three decades since policymakers realized healthcare costs were skyrocketing.

We in corporate wellness have spent those years trying to convince employees to work through an endless list of ԓshoulds. Walk. Eat more veggies. Complete an HRA. Take your meds. Read labels. Lose weight.

We've tempted employees with carrots: coffee mugs, challenges and competitions, cash rewards. And weve beaten them with sticks: higher co-pays and higher premiums, even job loss.

So how's that working for us?

Were spending about $2 billion every year on corporate wellness.

Half of our employees have at least one of nine serious chronic diseases, and weҒre pathetically grateful for healthcare costs that PwC projects will only rise 7% in 2014.

To put that in perspective, the highest annual growth in recent years was 9%. So while the latest numbers do represent an improvement, its hardly a startling turnaround.

Cultivate vs. Incent

As Thomas Edison said, "There's a better way, find it."

Here's my proposal for a better way:

We can only cultivate health and wellbeing in our workplaces when we openly identify the employer-created obstacles to health and wellness.

A culture that chases wellness with flavor of the month programs and tit-for-tat incentives is doomed to disappointment. Trying to get employees to buy into our view of what they should prioritize has not worked. We cannot incent our way to wellness.

Employers must return their attention to their own accountabilityto the opportunities to improve health, wellness and wellbeing that only they as employers can influence and change.

The truth is that most workplaces prematurely age employees. Its almost as if theyve been designed to encourage inactivity, poor nutrition, and to maximize stress and anxiety, all of which lead to a well-documented cascade of negative health outcomes and their associated treatment costs.

When we think about environmental factors, too often we often focus exclusively on the physical or ғbuilt environment. Yes, a cafe with healthy food choices helps. Yes, it's great to paint the stairwells.

Yet the workplace environment consists of more than physical facilities. It includes the organizational habits, routines and rituals that taken together form your workplace culture.

Lets not kid ourselves. A workplace where people routinely schedule meetings instead of lunch is probably not a healthy workplace. Sponsoring a weight loss program doesn't fix that.

A workplace that tolerates bullying supervisors is probably not a healthy workplace. Offering yoga classes in an on-site fitness center doesnt fix that.

A workplace where managers arrive at 7 and leave at 7, only to go home and check messages and emails is probably not a healthy workplace. Providing calorie counts in the cafeteria doesn't fix that.

A workplace where employees brace themselves for this quarters reorg or the latest strategic redirection is not a healthy workplace. Executive ғwellness champions don't fix that.

Two questions to consider

1) What broader working conditions affect your employees wellbeing?

Look beyond physical facilities and consider your companyҒs broader working conditions and your organizational rituals, practices and habits. Do they increase stress and anxiety, or reduce it? Do organizational and management behaviors inadvertently undermine the healthy behaviors that employees might otherwise choose on their own?

2) How can you reduce organizational barriers to wellbeing?

It's tempting to jump to the obvious: add showers and more people will work out at lunch.

Yet changes in other, seemingly unrelated, organizational factors may be higher-impact. Your mandatory meeting on the last Friday of every month at 4:30 PM Pacific, 6:30 PM Central and 7:30 PM Eastern probably triggers stress and disrupts healthy meals and exercise schedules far more than a lack of showers.

As employers return their attention to the many elements of workplace culture that only they can directly control, companies can begin to reap the much larger financial and productivity benefits of a workplace that truly cultivates wellbeing.

Article written by Healthiest Employers


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