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Why Do Staff Wellness Programs Fail?

What is a ‘wellness program’? It seems straightforward; a program that focuses on wellness. But ‘wellness’ factors in a number of aspects, from medical requirements, diet and fitness to mental health, stress, lifestyle, personal and financial issues. Can one program factor all these in? Does it need to?

When you start to analyse staff wellness programs on a more definitive level it becomes more complex, and the failure to factor this into planning for one is what often lies at the root of why some programs fail. It’s in analysing why these programs fail that just may help outline a pathway to success.

 

You’ve Not Found the Right Staff Wellness Program

There are many kinds of workplace wellness programs out there, from third party packages to programs developed inhouse. They may focus on one or varying issues, from physical health and fitness to mental health and lifestyle. They might try to incorporate all of these and throw in some bells and whistles on top. But just as the dietary needs of one person can differ vastly from another’s, so too can the needs of the people in one business be different to the business next door.

Staff wellness programs are more effective when they are tailored to target the specific needs of the staff. There is no blanket solution.

Before implementing a staff wellness program make sure you’ve got a finger on the pulse of what actually concerns your employees. This can be done through employee satisfaction surveys, meetings, and one-on-one discussions, and is better attained when there is a workplace culture that encourages open discussion.

 

The Wellness Program is of Low Quality

Once the needs of the staff are uncovered it’s important to implement a targeted program of high quality. If nutritional health was found to be of concern amongst the staff then bringing a daily supply of fruit into the office is a nice idea, but it does little to address the endemic issue of health in the workplace. There may be other factors, like people working so much overtime they have little chance or energy to cook a healthy meal at home. Or perhaps they know little about nutritional health and would benefit from a more educational program.

 

Lack of Staff Engagement

A comprehensive study of workplace wellness programs published by US think tank RAND found that less than half of the staff surveyed engaged in staff wellness programs. Where wellness programs failed, the staff were often not aware of the programs, didn’t understand their importance, or were unable to engage due to conflicts with their workload or home life.

The same study found that successful staff wellness programs implemented effective communication strategies that ensured staff were not only made aware of the wellness programs made available to them, but of the importance of health, well-being, and work/life balance. The successful programs were also tailored in a way that were accessible, flexible, and convenient to all.

 

Misguided Incentives. Or a Lack of Incentive Altogether

One way to attract staff engagement is the use of incentives in terms of reward or penalty, or competition, though balance needs to be factored in. Having evaluated wellness programs with both participation-based and outcome-based incentives, multiple studies found the use of incentives can have a negative effect. Some incentives perpetuated workplace inequality, with staff unable to engage to the same level as others due to workloads or family commitments, and therefore not having the same opportunity to win the incentives. One study even found that incentives led to the overtreatment of healthy (and particularly competitive) employees.

On the flip side the studies also found that wellness programs often failed because they simply did not appeal to the staff. They offered no incentive at all, even from a standpoint of interest.

The key when it comes to the use of incentives is to find balance. Some people respond to incentives and competition, so incentives may prove a productive part of your staff wellness program, it just needs to be done in a way that doesn’t exclude others. If you don’t want to push incentives, then you will need to ensure the program arouses interest. The RAND study found businesses with successful wellness programs engaged the staff in building, incorporating, and analysing the effectiveness of the program. By being involved in the whole process, staff were not only interested but kept engaging because the programs were better adapted to their needs.

 

The Corporate Culture Doesn’t Reflect the Intentions of the Wellness Program

A staff wellness program is a great way to engage staff and promote wellness and productivity, but it’s not a band-aid solution to fix an overall business model. Many staff wellness programs fail because other areas of the business or management don’t reflect the values the programs are trying to promote. If employees are being pressured in other areas of work in a way that engenders stress or poor home/work life balance, it is unlikely the wellness program will take effect.

Studies of successful staff wellness programs found that management made the health and well-being of their staff a priority and actively tried to incorporate it into the workplace culture. One survey of over 200 chief human resource officers found that a key to successfully engendering wellness as part of the culture was for the leadership to promote it, incorporate it into discussion and exhibit that they too prioritised it in their own lives. 

The Program Isn’t Given Enough Time

Positive changes to health and wellness take time to implement, whether it’s on an individual or corporate scale. Unfortunately, many staff wellness programs are abandoned because they don’t have a quick and significant uptake. A slow uptake doesn’t necessarily mean the program is a failure, it may just be that staff haven’t been given enough time to engage in the program or exhibit the benefits. Work is only one aspect of an employee’s life, and just because a wellness program has been introduced into it doesn’t mean the benefits will automatically take effect in the other areas of their life. This will take time. Researchers of staff wellness programs recommend giving programs at least 18 months to truly analyse its effectiveness.

There is still a lot of research to be done on the effectiveness of staff wellness programs, but solid conclusions are starting to form. Staff wellness programs are effective and do have their place, but they need to be well researched and incorporated in a meaningful way if they are to be successful.