employers miffed at employees’ lack of health engagement? get real. (one year later)

April 21, 2011

in change,communication,culture,health care,wellness

i wrote this post one year ago for boston college’s sloan work and family research network blog. today i’ll be talking about much of these things at PENJERDEL benefits and compensation association’s 29th annual forum. since last year, more companies recognize social networks and communities as solutions, innovative partnerships are springing up, and yesterday’s cohealth tweet chat focused on mobile health. and we’re still frustrated by lack of engagement, with more companies throwing money or penalties at the problem. a year has passed; we’re taking baby steps.

A recent National Business Group on Health and Towers Watson report finds employers frustrated with their employees’ lack of engagement in their own health and feeling their vendors aren’t bringing the goods, either. And they’re miffed about it.

Miffed? For real?!

Pardon me for saying, but I’m not sure any company qualifies for miffed righteousness just yet. At least, not about their employees’ lack of health engagement. Those who could qualify would be able to answer yes to all of the following:

1. Everyone understands that a healthy workplace is part of our business strategy. Our leadership sets the tone and our managers create the environment, and we recognize and reward them based on the actions they take. Some of our leaders are grappling with their own health challenges; we believe this makes them even better health champions.

2. Employees and their families are our partners. We are not doing unto them or asking them to do unto us. We are doing together.

3. Our health and wellness programs are based on evidence-based research. They integrate with each other and with other programs that affect employee health and well-being: work-life flexibility, professional development, and recognition, for example. Our incentives reward for taking first steps (taking a health risk assessment) and for progress made (sticking with a new behavior for an extended period of time).

4. We’re constantly looking for disconnects between our messages and our environment. Our cafeteria and vending machines aren’t stocked to the gills with junk, and our office locations and policies encourage movement.

5. Our information is targeted for specific end users and made available in a variety of ways. It appeals to each audience’s interests and aspirations, not only on what’s in it for the company.

6. Our benefits portal organizes information according to users’ needs, not the needs of program owners or vendors. It offers articles, tools, and interactive exercises that support someone all the way from deciding to make a change to preparing for it to doing it. When we don’t have the information or available tool, we help employees find trusted resources.

7. We offer social networking communities to facilitate conversation about living with chronic conditions, kicking the tobacco habit, organizing a walking group—real-life conversations about what concerns, frustrates, and interests employees and their families. We also offer our employees other ways to ask questions and seek advice from one another or the benefits department—like blogs and online forums.

8. All of our online information sits outside the firewall so employees and their families can get the information 24/7. Since the bulk of our program is online, we provide the necessary computer training to those who need it. And we plan for large groups of employees who need translation support.

9. We’re working with our insurance providers and other health and wellness partners to determine where and how we’ll use mhealth, health games, and other health 2.0 innovations in our company 2.0 world. We’re engaging our networks’ physicians so they, too, know about our efforts and can support them. And we’re forging community and nonprofit partnerships that make a difference in the communities in which we work and where our future talent goes to school and lives.

10. We realize that we, like the rest of the health care system, are grappling with a tremendously difficult and sometimes baffling situation. Yet we believe that healthy employees are more engaged in their work, have stronger relationships, and create better results with our customers. We will stay committed to creating a healthy organization, measuring and adjusting our efforts until we get it right.

One of the fundamental flaws in the employer-provided benefits system has been that it requires employers to assume an additional role. Companies didn’t enter the world to help individuals stay or get healthy—they’re not health care providers. Companies are invested in their product, whether that’s a tangible or service-oriented one. That’s why for years the game has been about containing health care costs, whether through managed care (HMOs) or cost shifting, and has largely ignored the connection between health, engagement, and productivity.

But the tide is turning. And sharp companies and leaders will turn away from being miffed and turn toward action. We have a long way to go, but simply talking about the issues from different angles and with new partners is a great place to start.

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