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Creating an Culture of Happiness and Wellness in the Workplace

Companies are recognizing that it really is all about the people they are beginning to truly treat talent management as a core part of their competitive strategy and not just an incidental that can be managed by HR policies alone. This is why making sure that employees are healthy and satisfied with their work environment is becoming a competitive advantage. Creating an environment with a holistic sense of employee wellness can help employees feel happy and more satisfied, which will only yield higher productivity and better morale.

Even if you already have a wellness program in place, you need to be careful that it's sending the right messages and accomplishing its goals. Traditional corporate wellness programs can sometimes miss the mark, so it's imperative that HR be engaged with the corporate wellness function in order to gauge how employees are interacting and feeling about the program. Ask yourself: are my employees really getting what they need?

Expand the Definition of Corporate Wellness

Employers use the term "wellness" to talk about and measure physical health. There's nothing wrong with that, except that "health" is really about so much more than proper nutrition and exercise for employees and their families .

"Good health also means having enough money to be able to enjoy life, to not stress about bills or retirement," stated Jennifer Benz, founder and chief strategist of Benz Communications, an HR and benefits communication strategy firm.

"For maximum effectiveness, employers need to expand the definition of wellness to include financial health equal to physical health. This means promoting financial literacy and encouraging employees to contribute to their 401(k)s, open a tax-advantaged health savings account (HSA) to pay for eligible medical expenses (if they have a high-deductible plan), and participate in the financial programs they offer," Benz continued.

Benz offers the following three steps for weaving together physical and financial health messaging, and helping employees achieve overall health:

  • Broaden the definition of wellness. Most employees have heard the term wellness and most likely assume it's related to physical health. Help them see the whole picture. They may not immediately realize how financial health is crucial to maintaining their overall health, Benz says. Connect the dots for them. Rebrand your wellness campaign so that finance is on par with physical health.
  • Create profiles that demonstrate importance to employees according to life stage. Young employees may not understand how opening a 401(k) early in their careers will help them earn more compound interest. Employees closer to retirement may not know that they can make catch-up contributions to their HSA. To make the most of your company's financial benefits, segment your employees through program-use data. Once you have well-defined groups, you can create employee profiles that provide relevant financial and physical health content. These profiles will help you develop your communication plan as well as execute it.
  • Communicate year round. You will never have enough time (or attention) to weave together the health and financial messages employees need if you only communicate once a year. Build the channels and processes necessary to send employees shorter messages all year long. This helps employees and family members focus on the issues, remember what's available and take action.

Incentivize, Don't Penalize

How would you like it if $50 per pay period were deducted from your pay check because your BMI indicates you’re overweight? Some companies, although undoubtedly with the best of intentions, actually do this. In this type of plan, employees can be taxed for things like their weight, smoking cigarettes, or other lifestyle habits that take a negative impact on their health. Not surprisingly, "health penalty" plans can be highly controversial and land your company in a heap of uproar and dissent.

Clarian Health Partners, for example, a large Indianapolis-based healthcare system, found itself in the midst of controversy after announcing that starting in 2009, 13,000 employees at five area hospitals would face a surcharge of up to $30 per pay period if they smoked, didn't fill out a health-risk questionnaire, or fell short of targets for weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure—a $5 penalty for each.

Sheriee Ladd, Vice President for human resources, says that as a healthcare provider, Clarian of course wanted to do their part in encouraging healthful behaviors. However, even though the company offered free lifestyle and nutrition coaching, stop-smoking programs, fitness centers, and other wellness activities, employees rebelled against the "health tax" policy.

"We couldn't get people to hear the message because they were so stuck on the charges," says Ladd.

This idea could work if it were simply rebranded and thought about in a less punitive, more positive light. Clarian took a new course. Rather than being penalized for missing health targets, employees who met them now receive up to $30 extra in every paycheck.

"Now the package is more tolerable for employees to hear and digest," says Ladd.

Make Health a Game

Adam Bosworth, former VP of product management at Google, has been an important player in development of Google Health, Google Docs and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Bosworth went on to found Keas in 2008, a corporate wellness program that uses gaming, team dynamics and web and mobile technology.

He shares some insight into why Google Health failed.

"We stopped and asked ourselves, why is this not working? We're giving these people great content, and we're giving them good advice, but they're not following it. And we asked ourselves the question we should have asked in the first place, which is why are we like this? It's not that they don't know [that they are unhealthy]; it's that they’re coping with stress. […] They're tired because of the way that they’re coping, and food makes them feel better in the short term. It's the same reason you sometimes see nurses smoking outside the cancer hospital. And if you sit there and lecture these people, that’s the last thing they need."

It turns out that the first lesson learned was that people like to be engaged on a social level, even when it comes to something as personal as health and lifestyle issues.

"We said, what are the things people really like to do? The first thing is people like to have fun. They like to play games. They like to be rewarded. There used to be this belief that games were only played by 20-somethings and teens… What most people don't know is that the average Farmville user is a 43-year-old woman…Facebook had also come out […] and it had shown that people's desire to be socially connected was very high…Fun turns out to be huge. If you make it a game and the game rewards you, that is pure operant conditioning. That is basically – do the right thing, you get points, you get acknowledgement, you get badges, your friends online are telling you what a great job you're doing – all of that is positive stimulus.

"So suddenly, eating the healthy lunch is not something that you dread; it's something that cheers you up. Even then, one of the other things I learned from the Google Health experience is that very few people are going to exercise their way from where they are today to where they should be. So the other thing that became clear was that you have to have a holistic program."

Finally, you should make an effort to make your workplace a comfortable, enjoyable environment. According to The Fiscal Times, employees should be encouraged to move around and take regular, scheduled “movement breaks”.

"Employees who fill their morning routines, lunch breaks, or happy hours with physical activity tend to be more engaged and energetic on the job than those who stay glued to their chairs. Getting a move on throughout the workday improves overall cardiovascular health, provides a healthy distraction from stressful office situations, and can even enhance workers’ capacity to tolerate physiological stress."

So if job satisfaction is low and turnover is high in your organization, you might want to take a look at the attention you are giving to employee wellbeing. What kinds of programs do you have in place to make sure your employees are healthy and satisfied with their lives in and out of the office? Think about the kind of culture your current policies and attitudes are fostering throughout your organization. Is this the kind of place you would want to spend at least 40 hours a week? Throwing money at the problem isn't necessarily the answer– sometimes even a hefty paycheck isn't what it takes to reward your best workers or draw higher performance.

Your comments and feedback are welcome below! We'd like to know how you feel about your company's culture and the strategies in place that make your company a great place to work.

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