THE DEBATE ABOUT the benefit of employee wellness programs continues to be discussed in board rooms, chat rooms, and at the water cooler, but they’re asking the wrong question. You can’t get the right answer if you ask the wrong question. They’re not asking the right questions about employee wellness because they don’t know what they don’t know.
The wellness industry is selling a pretty standard plan. According to the standard plan, first you design an incentive program to help encourage participation. This approach ignores the fact that employees have a built-in incentive program that provides intrinsic motivation—if you know how to activate it.
The usual intervention programs target key areas such as weight management, smoking cessation, and physical activity. The typical approach complete ignores robust research that has repeatedly demonstrated that stress and these activities are bound together.
How are Americans handling stress? On a graded scale, most would receive an F. But it’s not their fault. In most cases they’ve been taught to ignore stress. Some of us even take pride in how much stress we can handle and keep going. Out of those who do attempt to reduce or manage stress, most do not use the best practices.
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The American Psychological Association reported that 10% of Americans don’t attempt to manage stress. Those who do try to manage stress, with try being the key word, don’t know the most effective methods.
62% say they manage stress with screen time including:
42% surf the Internet or go online
40% watch two or more hours of television or movies a day
21% play video games
7% sound off on social media[/message][su_spacer]
The problem is that this is not stress reduction or management. It’s simply distraction. It does not reduce their level of stress or change the circumstances that caused the stress. Distraction is only good as a temporary, stop-gap method until you can take constructive action to actually reduce stress.
Exercise is a beneficial dose-dependent method of stress reduction, but research repeatedly shows that even individuals who know exercise reduces their stress don’t exercise when they feel too stressed. Other research shows that pro-health behaviors including exercise, good eating habits, and adequate sleep improve when a person is happy and decrease when the person is unhappy. A meta-analysis from Harvard that reviewed 200 independent studies affirmed that positive emotions increase beneficial health behaviors and reduce adverse health behaviors such as poor food choices, alcohol, and drug use.
Research also shows that when an individual decides to change behaviors, such as embark on a weight loss plan, even well-intentioned extrinsic rewards can reduce their intrinsic motivation.
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The effect comes from two separate directions. Stress negatively affects numerous bodily functions and digestion is one of those functions. Chronic stress has repeatedly been reported as an underlining cause of Type II Diabetes and obesity both because of the disruption of digestive function caused by stress and because stress often leads to emotional eating, a common aspect of poor dietary choices.
Research has shown that comfort foods do increase heart coherence, which contributes to improved health, but happiness improves heart coherence without the calories. Happiness also does not come with a side of guilt that often accompanies comfort foods and decreases heart coherence.
Smoking cessation is not immune from the influence of stress. In fact, researchers reported that 60% of individuals who still smoke suffer from anxiety. Chronic stress is considered a major contributing factor to the development of anxiety.
What would be better?
Corporate Wellness Programs designed to permanently reduce stress (not just using dose-dependent stress reduction methods) would improve both wellness program and employee engagement.
Overwhelming research demonstrates that happier (lower stress) employees naturally make better choices about food, exercise, sleep, alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors. Humans naturally pursue choices that feel better. If someone doesn’t have stress reduction skills they may turn to comfort foods, alcohol, drugs, or distraction in front of the television. That same person, after learning to feel better on purpose, would make better choices in all those areas. The better choices would be intrinsically motivated.
Wellness programs should keep Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory in mind when they design their programs. The further to the right the form of motivation is on the chart, the more likely it is the behavior will not only be started, but continued.
The benefits of walking typically emphasized by clinicians and social marketing, such as “better health” and “disease prevention” are not the same ones that will optimally motivate inactive individuals, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Autonomy is a very strong basic human need. When we design wellness programs (or jobs) that decrease autonomy they are working against nature. I’ve seen a number of wellness programs that promote walking during one’s lunch break. While that is not a bad idea if it is what the person wants to do with their lunch break, making it a mandate, even an implied mandate, decreases the sense of autonomy. Recent research found that having the freedom to choose one’s activities and location during lunch helped employees recover from job stress. While walking can relieve stress, how the employee feels while walking can increase stress if the employee resents being required to walk. It is the perception of the requirement, not whether it is an actual requirement that determines whether the employee’s sense of autonomy is violated.
I recently visited with an HR Director at the end of the day the company put on their Wellness Fair and I asked her if the day left her feeling better or worse. With a smile that tried to reflect a good attitude, she admitted it made her feel worse. Then I asked her how she thought employees felt after checking their BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure and other health markers. Again, she felt the Wellness Fair had a deflating effect on employees.
Overwhelming evidence demonstrates didactic warnings about negative health consequences of poor lifestyle choices don’t improve behavior. In the employment arena there is a double price, one because the efforts don’t produce the desired results, and secondly because they reduce employee positive mood, which can reduce employee engagement.
Instead of asking whether your existing wellness program is providing the ROI you expect, ask if the program was designed using the latest research on human motivation and behavior. You won’t know its potential unless and until you have a program that is designed for success. If you need help, reach out to me.
APA. “Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits?” Annual. American Psychological Association, 2014. <http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf>.
Boehm, J. K., & Kubzansky, L. D. “The heart’s content: The association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health.” Psychological Bulletin Epub April 2012 (2012): 138(4):655-91 .
Gorin, Amy A., et al. “Autonomy support, Self-Regulation, and Weight Loss.” Health Psychology 33.4 (2014): 332-339.
Joseph, Madeline Matar, Mark S. McIntosh and Christine Marie Joseph. “The Effects of Various Comfort Food on Heart Coherence in Adults.” Scientific Absracts on Health and Organizational Outcomes in Healthcare (2014): Suppl1.
Segar, Michelle L. and R. Caroline Richardson. “Prescribing Pleasure and Meaning: Cultivating Walking Motivation and Maintenance.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 47.6 (2014): 838-841. PDF – printed. 2015.
Trougakos, John P., et al. “Lunch Breaks Unpacked: The Role of Autonomy as a Moderator of Recovery during Lunch.” Academy of Management Journal 57.2 (2013): 405-421.