If You Build It Correctly... They Will Come

Empty conference room
Empty conference room

When looking at corporate well-being programs, we tend to think in terms of managing conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, and stress-related illnesses. This is understandable since these ailments can be the most costly to organizations and individuals. But if we wish to achieve greater success, we must broaden our thinking about wellness programs.

Typically, our first measures of success rely on participation of employees; at first it's completing a health risk assessment or biomedical testing to find out where each individual is in terms of his/her own health. Once the results of the health risk assessments and aggregated biomedical results are in, organizations can begin putting programs in place that will result in the necessary changes. Ultimately, a successful wellness program will result in changes in their employees' health and in the organization's medical spend due to the improved health of their employees.

This paints a nice picture and is a fairly straightforward approach to achieving those results. But wait, if things are so straightforward, why isn't every employee and his/her dependents (if the organization includes them) moving toward healthy behavior at breakneck speed? There are two simple components that are often overlooked: employee readiness and behavior modification.

Simply put, changing behaviors is what wellness programs are ultimately about. But one does not change behavior overnight and certainly not in one easy step. Knowing the stages of change and creating communication and awareness around these stages will help move employees forward.

People go through six stages when contemplating any change in their lives. These stages of change apply to behavior modification that employees need to embrace. Employers should encourage behavior modification in order to achieve a higher level of health. This piece of the puzzle is actually the most difficult aspect of wellness programs. How organizations address their communication and awareness campaigns around this aspect will determine whether or not they achieve their workplace wellness goals.

The stages of change include:

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation (Not Ready)

No intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future. One may not even be aware that there is a problem or know his/her risk factors.

Stage 2: Contemplation (Getting Ready)

Aware that a problem exists and seriously thinking about overcoming it, but have not yet made a commitment to take action. Risk factors are being defined for them. This is where the health risk assessment or biomedical testing begins to enlighten employees. Higher participation rates in these tests allow employers to better understand their population demographics rather than just concentrating on the few employees that may already be in disease management program(s) or have aggregate claims that paint a blurry picture for the employer. Nominal incentives are often used in this stage to encourage employees to participate.

Stage 3: Preparation (Ready)

Individuals in this stage are intending to take action soon. This is an educational stage and one in which organizations typically put programs into place to address the issues found through the health risk assessment and biomedical testing. Helping these employees understand what their risk factors are and what positive changes can be made to move them along the continuum should be the goal. This is an area that can take time to change because employees will be deciding whether they want to change and whether they think they can change. Reinforcement through recognition can be helpful at this stage.

Stage 4: Action

Action involves the most overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy. This is the stage where individuals are actually making some changes that will ultimately affect their condition(s). The number of risk factors may affect the amount of time it will take to actually see some positive changes. Incentives used in this stage should be different from earlier stages. There is more skin in the game and the reward may be higher or have a different value. For example, employees that are taking action may receive a discount on their premiums or an additional employer contribution to their health savings accounts (HSAs). Ongoing recognition and reinforcement is vital in this stage so the desired actions continue.

Stage 5: Maintenance

Working to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action. A time for celebration because the employee has hit a goal and wants to maintain it. Employers need to consistently reinforce through recognition and check ins (annual or sooner if necessary) in order to keep everyone accountable and on track.

Stage 6: Relapse

Returning to old behaviors and abandoning new changes -- the stage everyone fears and some will fall into. It happens but it's not the end game. Shoring up what has happened in all of the stages before may begin the cycle again on a modified basis. No one is perfect, and relapses occur. Building this into the strategy will prepare the employer to be ready to take action and encourage the employee to move in the right direction.

If employees aren't aware of their employers' programs and how to participate, unhealthy behaviors won't change. Toward that goal, it is imperative that wellness programs include thorough, up-to-date communication plans. The WorldatWork "Total Rewards and Employee Well-Being Practices" survey, reported that 70 percent of employers communicate their well-being programs on a frequent and ongoing basis. Since the average person has to hear something five to seven times before he/she remembers it, frequent and ongoing communication is key to wellness program success.

Build it -- with behavior modification in mind -- and they will come.

This post is part of two series produced by The Huffington Post: our monthlong "Work Well" initiative -- which focuses on thriving in the workplace and aims to present creative solutions you can use to take care of yourself as you take care of business -- as well as our series to mark The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). The theme of this year's conference is "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution." To see all the content in the "Work Well" series, visit here; and read all the Davos 2016 posts here.