Workplace Wellness Dominates at Employer Forum

One perk of working in a city as big as Chicago is the conferences, big and small, that provide learning opportunities, ideas and free coffee and bagels in the morning — especially the everything bagels.

The Midwest Business Group on Health held an employer-only forum on wellness, well-being and engagement Jan. 23, giving me the chance to hear what employers had to say, chat with my table mates informally about workplace health and listen to several experts speak on different health-related topics.

Many more ideas came up in the seven-hour forum, but here are the major takeaways that any employer should be aware of:

The Workplace Wellness Debate: Ryan Picarella, president of the Wellness Council of America, spoke about rethinking the approach to workplace wellness and building inspired organizations. Even though health care costs are going up and even though organizations are spending more money on health and wellness than before, population health is declining. Something needs to change in wellness strategy.

One topic he brought up was the debate over the value of workplace wellness. He thinks it’s fun to debate, and I agree! The reputation of workplace wellness goes up and down through phases, from something that’s celebrated to something that gets analyzed in “Workplace Wellness Programs are a Sham” articles. Where does the truth lie?

I happen to land on the more skeptical side of this (as I do with many topics), unlike Picarella who is more optimistic. That aside, one point he brought up is hard to argue: No matter what side of this debate you’re on, what we can agree about is that having happy, healthy employees is important, and something needs to be done to improve employee health.

He gave a lot of behavioral-science based ideas for improving wellness programs, like by thinking about what motivates people, how environmental factors impact employees, and where employees’ sense of purpose lie. Workplace wellness programs need a foundation that addresses people’s basic needs like food and shelter. A program that addresses something like the importance of nutrition or going to the gym without acknowledging that some people won’t be able to focus on that if their priority is keeping the lights on or putting food on the table? That won’t do.

Another idea he shared is simple, but I find it to be strong. It’s one of those statements that’s obviously true, but I can see organizations and people not following it in practice in more areas of business than just wellness. More wellness activities and programs aren’t always better, he said. Rather than think about adding another thing, and another thing, and another, think strategically about the value add.

Persuasion Vs. Manipulation: Part of this event was a roundtable discussion about the role of trust in wellness. When someone communicates to you, the message may sound like persuasion or as manipulation, depending on how you feel about that person. Even a neutral message can read as manipulation if you do not trust the party providing the information.

Everyone in the room had discussions with their tables and then with the whole room about how to build trust in the workplace.

I love this discussion, because there are so many deterrents to trust now, like with data privacy. Bring in wellness programs to that topic, and you get health data privacy, which is something people can be understandably sensitive about.

Without going into too much detail, the audience response here was interesting. One person spoke about employees worried about where their biometric data was going. The organization responded to this concern by making it crystal clear to employees what the company could see, what they couldn’t see, how the data was protected, and what they’d need to talk to the vendor about for answers.

Another audience gem: One person suggested including compassion in your messaging, and making sure your vendors do, too. At the organization, some employees had complaints about how rude a vendor was in answering questions and addressing concerns. The organization responded by reaching out to the vendor with this issue and suggesting that the call center employees go through compassion training.

In conclusion, be direct, transparent and comprehensive.

Also, my initial big-picture reaction to this issue of trust: Isn’t a certain amount of skepticism healthy? Why should any employee blindly trust their employer? How much trust is realistic for employers to expect?

A piece of career advice that has stuck with me over the years is that even though loyalty and working hard are important, you need to look out for yourself. Don’t blindly believe that your employer always has your best interests in mind. If you feel guilty about quitting when you need to move on with your career, remember that at the end of the day, if an employer comes across financial trouble, they may very likely lay you off. It’s just business as usual. Both sides can respect each other but acknowledge the reality that their employment contract is business, not personal.

The idea I’m trying to get across here — as somebody who sees that direct correlation between trust and loyalty — is that employers should want and expect employees to ask questions, be curious and even be skeptical when it comes to workplace matters that concern them. It gives both sides a chance to build a professional level of trust.

What do you think? What wellness-based conversations do you think more employers should be having with one another?

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