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Avoiding Wellness Washing

posted by TrueNorth Employee Benefits on Monday, November 6, 2023

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‘How to Create and Foster a Meaningful Wellness Culture Within Your Company’

Insights from Dr. Tim Sagers, President & CEO, Captive Health LLC

Several articles by industry insiders, including the recent feature shared by Benefits Pro, have referenced a growing trend defined as ‘wellness washing’ amongst workplaces of all shapes, sizes, and industry.  This trend is alarming in that it reiterates continued variability, inconsistency, and a general lack of understanding about wellness programming and employee health needs.  

The term ‘wellness washing’ is defined as a lack of knowledge or comprehensive composition of employee benefits and wellness programming.  Wellness is often misrepresented as a trendy, buzzworthy list of employee perks that lack cohesiveness and miss the mark in addressing the real needs of employees.  Falling short in this area over time can contribute to declines in overall company culture and the negative human capital metrics that accompany it.

For your company to avoid ‘wellness washing’ a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to wellness must be taken.   An approach that identifies, addresses, and supports the most important of your employee (and family) needs.  This investment, if done correctly, will result in tangible improvements to organizational culture and financial performance. 

Consider the following elements as part of an organizational wellness roadmap when considering benefit offerings and wellness program design.  Keep in mind each of these pieces build and rely upon one another to provide a cumulative effect.  Doing one or a few of these elements in isolation will result in minimal to no improvement.

Understand Your Experience:
Gain advanced insight into your benefit plan design and experience.  Specifically, prioritize a more robust understanding of your health plan experience and overall risk profile. This can help identify correlation and anticipate future risk of your employees and dependents.  Rather than simply accepting vague and minimally useful standard reports from your health claims administrator, leverage data aggregation software and expertise with clinical investigation to get a more representative picture of your experience.  This information will help make informed decisions around benefit/wellness offerings and their effectiveness.
Define Employee Needs:
View the employee as an internal customer and gain their feedback.  Take time to assess and evaluate their needs.  Solicit formal/informal feedback that is open and honest.  Provide multiple opportunities to share/learn from the challenges your employees and their families face.  This information should help to influence benefit offerings and incentive plan design.  Customize offerings to meet the unique needs of your teams.  Employee needs and feedback should continuously influence updates to your benefit and wellness plan offerings on a regular, ongoing basis.
Foster Engagement:
Share information pertinent and applicable to your employees.  Be sure to acknowledge and celebrate the difference between roles and office settings across your organization.  Meet employees where they are by considering access options for services and benefits.  Provide easy outlets for each role in your organization to receive information, provide feedback, and ask questions.  
Incent the Right Things: 
Wellness plans should incentivize things that matter!  This cannot be simply featuring healthy choices and behaviors.  It requires incentivizing participation and outcomes while providingreasonable alternatives known to be effective in improving employee health.  Rather than providing a health premium discount for participating in a 5k run or tracking/logging your steps, incentivize participation in, and outcomes of, biometric screenings that focus on quantifiable metrics.  
Focus on long-term health conditions and complexities having the most significant impact on your health plan: cardiometabolic risk and mental health.  For those whose outcomes are not in an optimal range, provide a reasonable alternative that includes structured wellness coaching and/or case management for high risk. 
Also consider incentivizing age/gender/disease-specific preventative screenings and gaps-in-care.  
Make it Measurable:
As mentioned in the prior section, measure engagement and outcomes of your employees.  Set targets/ranges according to evidence-based guidance and globally accepted practices.  Professional societies in the medical field can assist in determining optimal lab and biometric values.  Use comparative information, establish a baseline, and measure how you compare.  Assess aggregate data to evaluate trends and measure the effectiveness of programming and incentives.
Make it Fun!
Success starts with engagement and engagement is easier when it’s fun!  Consider featuring benefit offerings and wellness activities around seasonal or local events/holidays/etc.  Create opportunities for team building and community support.  This provides multi-layered benefits to creating an organizational culture of wellness.  Build the hype!  Get leadership involved and feature the fun within your internal communications.  Show new hires (and the doubters) that wellness and healthy activities can also be fun.
Keep it Fresh:
Review and update your programming, using employee feedback, at least every couple of years.  Your company profile changes.  So do the needs/challenges of your employees.  Stay in tune and continue to adapt your offerings.  Let employees know you hear them and that their feedback influences changes to benefit offerings and programming.  
In summary, the composition and maintenance of an employee benefits and wellness plan is not one size fits all.  Thoughtful and intentional efforts must be made to prioritize the benefits and outcomes that matter and to do away with those that don’t.  Continue to be nimble and adaptive to changing needs in the workplace and the world.  Considering each program year to be an opportunity to evolve and improve upon the last.  

Dr. Tim Sagers
President & CEO
Captive Health

Learn more about how Dr. Sagers and Captive Health can help support you and your organization’s efforts to improve benefit and wellness program offerings at or by calling us at (319) 536-1056


About Author

TrueNorth offers businesses of every size comprehensive solutions to meet their business needs and those of their employees.  If you are in need of business solutions and are looking for ways to protect and maximize your workforce, look to TrueNorth. Our Employee Benefits Division can assist you in providing for the well-being of both you and your staff. Call us today at 1-800-798-4080.

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