Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Carrot. Stick. Fish.

When workplace wellness programs began to get popular the common theme was to give employees incentives for participation. The wellness programs focused on biometric screenings and health risk assessments. Starting with knowing your numbers is an important piece of the wellness puzzle. The theory being when people knew their numbers they'd do something to improve them. The carrot arrived in the form of incentives which ranged from gift cards, a special luncheon with the boss, an extra day of vacation, etc. Did they work? For some people, yes. For some, they were suspicous of "big brother" intervening and didn't participate. Still others made some short-term changes but quickly fell back into their old habits.

Workplace wellness, take two. The stick! Some room in regulations gave employers the ability to punish those employees who didn't participate. Higher health insurance premium co-pays being the most popular stick. Do an HRA or you'll pay. Did the stick work? Again, for some. People respond to pain and spending more money is pain, particularly in this economy. Does the stick improve long-term wellness? The jury is still out on that one, but historically humans don't respond well to the stick over and over again. More people may be doing their HRA but are they investing the effort to make real improvements? Again, for some.

Most people, inherently, know what they need to do to get healthy.They may be deep in denial, but they know. You know. We all do. So, what are we misssing? Why haven't we yet been able to make positive lifestyle choices and wellness sustainable? I think it is the "how" we keep ignoring.

Everyone will recognize the popular quote from Lao Tzu, "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you'll feed him for a lifetime." What some wellness programs have missed, to date, is the fishing lesson. To make things more challenging, we have to acknowledge that each person might require a different fishing lesson. People are different. Their bodies are different, their lives are different, their budgets are different. Wellness needs to match the individual to be sustainable.

Teaching each person to fish for their own wellness requires time, enrollment, investment and a pathway. It is needs to be based on a series of small changes, over time, so new, healthy behaviors become habits. It needs to be accessible so each individual can get the lesson in the way they learn best. It needs to be experiential. I eat a donut; I feel awful in 30 minutes. I eat a piece of fresh fruit; I have more energy.

We can create all of the plans, programs and schemes in the world. But, until we empower people to learn how to fish by learning about themselves, we could be in the constant search for a bigger stick.

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