stop calling it a wellness program

when i was on HR happy hour talking about workplace wellness, the first point i wanted to make was that we need to stop calling efforts to improve employee health a “program.” doing so narrows the scope and usefulness of what companies are trying to achieve and how successful they are. creating a culture of wellness is the big-game hunting.

i could go all professorial on you about the difference between programs and cultures (finally putting my M.Ed. to some use), but that’s a tired approach. suffice to say, calling something a program is the kiss of death, especially when launched by HR. it’s the flavor of the month, ignored from the get-go. where a program does scrape out an existence, it lives a solitary life, segregated from its brethren programs. and like most programs, it’s very lock-step, very uniform and certainly not very deeply felt.

contrast that with attaining personal wellness. wellness isn’t lock-step. it’s not uniform. and it’s definitely deeply felt. wellness is challenging. it’s fitful and wobbly. it can be annoying. (so, too, can the people who preach it…i know.)

wellness needs to be an integral part of a company’s culture, not a program, if it’s to stand a chance. because a culture is pervasive, deeply ingrained and unshakable. it’s shared, valued and ritualized by all. and when companies start thinking about wellness as part of their culture rather than as a one-off program, they’ll start examining the other values and rituals, and yes, the programs, that run roughshod over this cultural norm.


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20 comments on this post.
  1. Frank Roche:

    A wellness culture…I like that…I mean, companies say they’re performance cultures and mean that (even if the execution is uneven). This is so true…it’s a cultural item.

  2. fran:

    trouble begins when the performance culture meets the wellness culture. which’ll win?

  3. Tanya:

    I, for one, don’t think that performance culture and wellness culture are necessarily mutually exclusive. I think you can show progress (granted it won’t be dollars and cents) on creating a wellness culture quarterly. There is a great business book called Change to Strange that articulates well how non traditional cultural metrics can be MORE effective at managing a great company than run of the mill measures.

  4. Cliff N.:

    Great post–especially: “wellness needs to be an integral part of a company’s culture, not a program”
    Creating a fundamental shift in culture means that everyone from top to bottom is committed to this change. All too often it seems that companies are not interested in making that commitment. Their “program” is window dressing–a great way to show that they are concerned with employee health and wellbeing with a single focus on the bottom line. By calling it a program, they have set it up “wellness” for cutbacks if the program does not move in a positive direction or lacks participation.

  5. fran:

    tanya, i didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. i also think a wellness culture improves a performance culture. what i meant to say was that once wellness becomes a part of the way work gets done, the way work gets done will change.


  6. fran:

    i honestly think it varies, cliff. i’d like to speak directly with the companies who are customizing their approaches to different countries and nationalities. and coming at this as an economic, not a health care issue. i think we’d hear more of what we’re discussing here.


  7. Greg Matthews:

    Is a wellness culture anything like a throat culture? I’ve had one of those, and they tickle.

  8. fran:

    wow. i don’t know why i bother to write my posts when you sum them up in one sentence. ;)


  9. Sarah Monley:

    Fran have you heard of the trainings by Dr. Judd Allen ( I recently attended one of his seminars and wondered if you thought a wellness culture coach certification is a worthwhile pursuit for professionals in this industry.

    thank you for a thought-provoking post, yet again!

  10. fran:

    sarah, i haven’t heard of or participated in his training, so i’m not sure how well i can respond to your question. anyone else reading this have any experience?


  11. fran:

    oh, and cliff – i meant to comment how right you are about the funding ramifications of calling it a program! we cut programs. we hold culture sacred.


  12. Tamara:

    Timely post- I am reading Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, and while it doesn’t speak directly about wellness initiatives, the model is applicable. And the author also mentions that programs are going to get a burst of action, and then fizzle out. So much of wellness is about educating the employer/client, which is good business and only fair for the client!

  13. Janet McNichol:

    In our environment, initiatives are short term, but programs live on indefinitely. I’m not sure what you call your wellness efforts really matters all that much anyway. We are working hard to create a culture of wellnes, but there’s still a line item in the budget for the “wellness program.” What would you call the budget line item(s) for a culture anyway?

  14. fran:

    how is “carrots and sticks don’t work”? i haven’t read. “nudge,” “made to stick,” and “predictably irrational” are my current favorites.


  15. fran:

    janet, i think what you call things does matter. look at your own organization: initiatives and programs experience different life lines, and you know it. yeah, you can’t have a line item for “culture,” but i bet those line items that support your culture are sacrosanct. that’s my point.


  16. Janet McNichol:

    I do agree with you that successful wellness efforts require a long term approach. And, I guess you’re right, that what you call something does matter. (Especially since your post about just that prompted me to comment ;-) I just don’t think there is anything inherently bad about calling it a wellness program (even when it’s launched by HR.) I think it’s all in how you market, what kind of trust you’ve built with staff, and how the term “program” (or whatever you choose to call it) is perceived in your work environment.

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  18. Kristen C.:

    I enjoyed this post and the many insightful comments. Couldn’t agree more that terminology plays a role in the adoption and overall success of a wellness strategy. In my own work I took the approach of wellness culture vs. programs as really what I’m aiming for is the adoption of certain behaviors regardless of whether that’s achieved inside or out of formal participation in company programs (encourage employees to take a 15 minute walk or whatever it may be). Semantics aside, it is healthy, balanced people who inspire healthy corporate cultures and THAT (imo) is what will drive the initial interest and result in broader, more sustained employee participation in wellness programs.

  19. fran:

    hi kristen. i couldn’t agree more. when you work or speak with companies who have been steadily building a healthy company, you can see and hear it in a variety of ways. it doesn’t come down to “we offer X or Y.” you don’t say what your own work is/was?


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