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If You Build It, Will They Come?

You’ve cornered the market on corporate wellness programs in your area, something you’ve accomplished by making numerous important connections and working hard over many years. You have a solid client base; reliable staff; tried, tested and true programming; and a good reputation. Why is it, then, that when you have your one-on-one with the human resources liaison for one of your corporate clients, he tells you the company’s wellness program is in trouble and may be defunded owing to lack of interest? Does the onus lie on your client to market your amazing wellness program to employees, or on you?

This scenario is sadly realistic. While the good news is that more and more companies are offering wellness programs to their staff, the bad news is that a stark “disconnect” exists between the offering and the accepting. According to a survey by Brodeur Partners (2015), a worldwide communications company headquartered in Boston, although 7 in 10 American workplaces offer wellness programs, many employees don’t know these programs exist, something Brodeur refers to as an “awareness gap.” Approximately 34% of employed Americans surveyed in June 2015 said they have a health and wellness program at work (the Brodeur Health and Wellness Survey was based on interviews with 542 adult Americans). By contrast, a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (2015) reported that 70% of workplaces offer a wellness program.

If you need more evidence that you must think more creatively to ensure that your health-ameliorating programs reach local employees, consider the results of Gallup research. According to a 2014 white paper, while more than 85% of large U.S. companies (1,000 or more employees) offer a wellness program, only 60% of employees at those companies are aware that their employer offers such a program (O’Boyle & Harter 2014). Furthermore, only 40% of those who are aware of a program say they actually participate in it. The bottom line: At companies that offer wellness programs, only 24% of employees are participating.

Now that you clearly see the conundrum, let’s move on to some solutions.

Know What You’re Dealing With

Let’s say employees are aware that a wellness program exists. Why do people push back? After all, aren’t workplace wellness programs meant to improve employees’ health and productivity while reducing healthcare costs? The reasons Brodeur survey respondents gave for their hesitancy included

  • privacy concerns (50%);
  • doubt that such programs would be helpful to them (31%); and
  • lack of confidence in an employer’s ability to run an effective program (19%).

Taking it a step further, the likelihood that an employee will resist workplace wellness programs increases with age, according to Brodeur. Fewer than 1 in 3 Millennials (27%) said they either do not participate in their workplace wellness program or wouldn’t if their workplace had one. The resistance jumps to more than 36% for Generation X and nearly half (45%) for Baby Boomers.

“This is a troubling inversion, but there’s an opportunity here,” said Brodeur Partners CEO Andrea Coville, in a press release. “Older workers, given that they are at higher risk for many conditions, are likely to deliver the biggest return on investment in a wellness program.”

The opportunity for your wellness program is ripe, especially considering the demand in workplaces that don’t offer them, or in companies where staff members are clueless about benefits. Nearly half the Brodeur respondents (45%) said they would participate if their workplace offered a wellness program, including 46% of Millennials, 47% of Gen Xers and 39% of Boomers.

Best Practices for Boosting Participation

According to the Gallup research mentioned earlier, one key factor in getting employees involved in wellness programs rests on the willingness of management to amp up its efforts (O’Boyle & Harter 2014). Greg Justice, MA, CEO of AYC Health & Fitness in Prairie Village, Kansas, agrees. “In larger companies, the ‘awareness gap’ is the responsibility of the managers, as they work [in close proximity to the employees],” he says. “Engagement is the key! When employees feel their managers care about them, they’re more likely to be engaged.”

Obviously, as a wellness professional you are not in a position to micromanage your clients; therefore, it’s important to discover what you can do to encourage engagement from your vantage point. “The hardest part is getting into the corporations and establishing the program,” says Justice. “In my experience, once we’re in, we’re able to create a viral effect that grows the program organically. The employees involved become our biggest advocates and promote the program for us. Every company is a bit different in the way they allow us to promote our programs. Usually we work with the human resources department or wellness department (if they have one) to promote our offerings.”

Justice advises other wellness professionals to network and build relationships with key players. One CEO asked Justice for help creating a company gym, and the connection they established helped overcome an obstacle once the gym was built. “A few months after the gym opened, [the CEO] came to me and said, ‘The gym looks great, but no one uses it.’ I told him it was because he used the ‘Build it and they will come’ theory. There was no guidance, no organized program. The key is to think, ‘Build it, program it and they will come.’

“I suggested a staff meeting, where I introduced my company . . . along with new weekly fitness classes. We started with two company-sponsored classes per week. Both of those classes filled immediately. After 1 month, we doubled the number of classes to four per week. Shortly after that, we doubled that number to eight. We currently run 30 classes per week.

Justice attributes his “viral effect” success to

  • having an initial relationship with a key player;
  • being introduced to staff; and
  • offering an “awesome service.”

Trina Gray, owner of Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan, takes a slightly different approach, encouraging wellness professionals to appeal to people’s heartstrings. She also prefers that companies not officially endorse her, but rather allow her to talk to staff and management directly as an “outsider.” Here’s why: “After 10 years in the trenches of corporate wellness, I’ve found that fitness professionals have an advantage in inviting and inspiring employees to participate in worksite wellness,” she says. “Why? Because employees often feel their employer is always telling them what to do. They don’t want to be told how to live life outside of work. They see wellness as an intrusion.”

Gray says employees ignore wellness initiatives because they want more control over their lives and “fewer rules and restrictions from their job.” “The key is to present the initiative as a gift, something that is a direct benefit to the employee’s personal life, including [his or her] relationships and ability to enjoy hobbies, even travel and live better,” Gray says. “Make the promotion and presentations all about the employee and not about the workplace. Make it more emotional appeal and less logistical and employees will hear it for the first time! It feels less like an employer-mandated activity. These subtle shifts really make the difference.”

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