Corporate Wellness Is Broken: A Call for Change

By November 13, 2018Health and Wellness

Corporate wellness is broken.

Simply, we’re targeting the wrong people, attempting to create accountability where none could take root, and failing to translate momentary successes into life-long habits.

It’s not necessarily our fault — the solutions that made first-order sense were the first ones the corporate wellness industry tried. FitBit step challenges. Reimbursement for gym memberships. Quarterly check-ins. Financial carrot/stick combos, tied rather forcibly to insurance premiums.

Corporate Wellness Is Broken: A Call for Change

We did the logical thing, identifying the issue as a lack of health, fitness, and wellness in our teams and attempting to resolve it by nudging individual behavior in the right direction.

And we failed. Miserably.

(Ask anyone who gets $150 a year for a gym membership or subjects themselves to a mandatory yearly blood test in the name of maintaining low insurance premiums if they’ve suddenly blossomed into a consistently healthy, self-motivated font of well-being as a result.)

We demand a better solution. One that builds wellness, and ultimately, one that gets us out of the world of nudges, carrots, and sticks — and into the world of intrinsic personal motivation leading to the life-long adoption of consistent, positive habits.

We demand the world of corporate wellness adapt to the reality of successful long-term behavior change.

The Mis-Targeting of Corporate Wellness

We begin by addressing the mis-targeting of wellness programs within our teams. In the mold of the pharmaco-industrial complex, we’ve attempted to create wellness via reactive intervention — targeting the overweight, the smokers, and the diabetics in our teams with individualized programs. We effectively wait until there is a diagnosable medical problem to introduce a solution.

This approach, while logical from the standpoint of reducing insurance premiums, is fundamentally backward — we’re waiting until the car’s engine has seized to change the oil.

Schedule a meeting with our team

Instead, we must address the entire population, abandoning a disease-only focus in favor of creating a culture of wellness in the workplace. Rather than focus on fixing only the broken cars, we must create a culture of proactive maintenance. This is a culture in which everyone participates, from at-risk populations to the healthy normals to those already dedicated to a life of exercise, nutrition, connection, and stress control. We must forego the idea of nudging behavior (by incentivizing the individual) in favor of altering behavior by changing the environment in which the behavior takes place.

The Whole Life Challenge is dedicated to this — enrolling entire teams in the simultaneous pursuit of health and well-being, declaring that “we’re going to improve our lives, and we’re going to do it together.” The result is an environment in which people do not feel individually targeted due to pre-existing conditions, but rather included in pervasive and positive culture change.

Introducing Effective Accountability

This group-rather-than-individual approach has the added benefit of introducing effective accountability. Rather than be allowed to quietly quit or fail, accountable only to a single overseer or a carrot/stick insurance paradigm, the individual is now part of a group, accountable to the collective and held to higher standards by other participants. We see this play out over and over again in the Challenge, as the basic social contract of “we said we’d do this together” overrides the individual tendency to fail out.

Corporate Wellness Is Broken: A Call for Change

Traditional wellness programs are hampered by another issue, one that again makes first-order logical sense, yet fails when viewed through the lens of actual result: offering partial solutions to the inherently complex problem of self-care. Well-meaning employers offer a gym membership, a wearable, access to nutritionists, an annual health screening — all of which are valuable, but all of which are partial in addressing the totality of the mind and body. We believe this is a mistake of the highest magnitude, akin to repainting the lines on a crumbling interstate overpass.

Instead, and perhaps counterintuitively, we need to develop programs that ask more of our people rather than less. We need to package a solution that addresses nearly all the touchpoints of wellness — the entire structure.

Instead of only trying to get our teams to exercise more, we must ask them to address the entire constellation of necessary health habits for mind and body. The Whole Life Challenge does this, addressing the physical through exercise, nutrition, mobility, and hydration while caring for the mental through sleep, mindfulness, connection, and reflection. We recognize the true complexity of wellness — and bring nothing less than a complete solution.

Creating Compliance (and Lifelong Habit)

Of course, this “everything is necessary” approach comes with its own difficulty — creating compliance. Where most wellness programs do this through extrinsic financial motivation, we are of the philosophy that compliance is best created by demanding a low bar to success, one that yields immediate intrinsic benefits. If we want our people to address the entirety of their habits, we must make each pursuit immediately achievable, with success coming quickly and effect felt shortly thereafter.

For instance, we ask our players to fulfill their in-Challenge exercise requirement by being active for a minimum of ten minutes each day. “Active” is self-defined and could range from a casual walk around the block to a high-intensity training session. Ten minutes serves as the minimum, a complete solution for an at-risk employee, while the more advanced participants can choose to go longer.

Corporate Wellness healthy habitsThis standard has a dual effect — immediate compliance coupled with strong habit formation. By allowing exercise to be self-defined, success comes easily, as “everything counts” and participants choose activities they’re naturally drawn toward. When everything counts and activity is self-selected, compliance is achievable instead of onerous. And when compliance is achievable instead of onerous, habit naturally results. Instead of having to exercise daily, participants want to exercise daily, and within a week or two, this practice yields observable, self-reinforcing results — increased energy, improved mood, and (perhaps) bodily change.

The behavior/result/behavior habit loop begins with the low bar and ends in the creation of intrinsic motivation.

We extend this principle to all 7 of the Whole Life Challenge’s Daily Habits. Multiple yes/no nutrition levels allow participants to select a level that asks for achievable change from current habits. The sleep requirement is similarly self-selected, asking participants to “sleep for a duration you select, one that leaves you feeling rested.” We ask for ten minutes of stretching, and ten minutes engaged in a self-selected Well-Being Practice.

In every instance, we recognize that we need to address the totality of wellness, we must do so in an intensely achievable manner, and we must do so in the context of group-level accountability.

Corporate Wellness Is Broken: A Call for ChangeToward Better Corporate Wellness

Right now, the none-too-subtle paradigms of corporate wellness are predicated on poor assumptions:

  • That behavior change should be targeted solely at the at-risk.
  • That accountability for change should lie solely with the individual.
  • That the only achievable interventions into health and wellness are partial.
  • And the assumption that motivation must be extrinsic, taking a carrot/stick approach to driving wellness.

Instead, we need to create a pervasive culture of wellness in the workplace, enrolling everyone. We’ll create an environment in which accountability is to the group, where our teams are literally surrounded and immersed in healthy behavior.

And we must present actual, holistic solutions — programs that demand more of our participants in scope, yet lower the bar to success in a manner that begets long-term habit change. We must better leverage the natural human desires for feedback, success, and result, and we need to do so by using an entire constellation of physical and mental health habits.

It’s time to get beyond smoking cessation, blood sugar control, and single-modality exercise challenges. It’s time to get beyond blunt financial reward. And it’s time to recognize that our first-order thinking was wrong, that effective corporate wellness isn’t about reducing insurance premiums, but rather about creating physically healthy, mentally resilient, supremely balanced workforces.

Of course, return-on-investment will inevitably follow, but perhaps more importantly, our businesses will become vital contributors to the well-being of our employees — and by extension, a quiet yet sweeping societal change.

Let’s un-break corporate wellness.

Jon Gilson
Jon Gilson is a coach and writer, and the CEO of the Whole Life Challenge.

Previously, he founded Again Faster Equipment, a functional fitness equipment company created to serve the CrossFit community. Established in 2006, Jon took the Company global in 2012, twice landing on the Inc. 500/5000 list of America’s fastest growing private companies.

From 2007 to 2013, he served as a Senior Lecturer for CrossFit, Inc., training aspiring CrossFit trainers at over 100 seminars, including engagements in Iceland, Afghanistan, Moscow, Holland, the United States, and Canada. Jon also served on the CrossFit L1 Advisory Board, helping establish policy for the organization’s training efforts from 2011 to 2013.

He’s also done stints in state government, gym management, and consulting — and currently teaches classes at CrossFit City Line.

Jon graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2003, summa cum laude, with a B.A. in Psychology. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Finance and Control from the Harvard Extension School, 2006, and has completed coursework in data analytics.

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