Creating a culture of wellness

by 04 Mar 2010

Creating a culture of wellness can be a positive step for organisations because it can improve morale and productivity while reducing costs associated with illness. The big question is can you do it without spending a lot of money or investing a lot of time, asks David Creelman

First, the benefits

A good place to start, whether you are think ing about wellness yourself or leading a con versation to get stakeholders onside, is sim ply to envisage the benefits. Imagine fewer people coming in to work tired or feeling ill. Imagine fewer calls in the morning with employees announcing they can’t come in because they are sick. Imagine an organi sation tangibly showing it cares for people by supporting wellness.

The intangible sense of a healthier work place is potent, but even accountants will be enthused as they calculate the benefits of fewer days off, reduced health care costs and the estimated productivity gains of a happier, healthier workforce.

Great gains have been made in work place safety over the two decades; why shouldn’t we see similar gains in wellness?

Implementation steps

The same implementation steps that apply to any new HR initiative apply to launching a wellness program: consult all the stake holders, get top management onside, and aim for some quick wins. However, there are a few extra things to keep in mind for well ness programs.

Larry Costello, who ran HR at kitchen and bathroom specialist American Standard during its famed turnaround from 2000 to 2008, argues that it is a good idea for sen ior managers to champion a program that will put them in touch with a wide range of employees; so it becomes an important ve hicle for establishing connection and com munication between a senior manager and the employees. At American Standard, CEO Fred Poses chose safety as the program to champion; but Costello argues that well ness is a very good program to champion and it’s the one he took on himself. Con sider whether the CEO or another senior leader wants to take on wellness for this extra purpose.

Another point to keep in mind is that just because wellness is such a nice thing to do, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply man agement discipline. There should be goals, metrics and assessments to ensure the pro gram is achieving what is intended.

The key to controlling costs is to recog nise that a great deal of wellness can be ac complished by communication and sym bolic rewards. You don’t have to buy everyone a gym membership; a trophy for the department that makes the greatest gains in fitness can be a great motivator. Ed ucation sessions on managing diabetes, stress and weight are not expensive and you may even find people eager to lead these kinds of sessions for free. The trick is sim ply to look for the low-cost interventions: the ones that educate and encourage peo ple, not expensive programs that take the onus for wellness off the individual.

An area of concern

One reason not to pursue a wellness pro gram would be that you don’t believe the or ganisation will be able to keep it up. Most people have a hard time sticking to healthy eating and exercise programs, and organi sations, composed of people, are no differ ent. A wellness program is exciting to launch, but it really only makes sense if you intend to continue it over the long term.

Perhaps the single most important test is to look at the senior management team. Do they take personal wellness serious ly? If they are not interested in wellness it’s unlikely they’ll show long-term support for the program. Without that support it’s likely to fade.

If your organisation does have leaders who you think will be supportive in the long run, then HR will still want to consider how to keep the program sustainable. One way is to ensure the initial program doesn’t have a large budget – that may sound counterin tuitive, but experienced HR professionals know a large budget is likely to be cut where as a smaller amount will be approved year after year.

Another sustainability tactic is to design the program so that it relies on grassroots initiatives by employees, rather than being a purely top-down corporate initiative. In any department there are likely to be a few wellness enthusiasts. If these people are en couraged and supported by the organisa tion then a lot can be done without taxing budgets or HR time.

In many organisations HR budgets are tight and employee stress is high. Wellness programs can be a great thing to deploy in difficult times

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management.