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Jay Seifert
Jun 3, 2013 11:45 AM
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Jay Seifert, Guest ColumnistJay Seifert is the co-founder of LoneStart Wellness. He is a pioneer in applying established principles of social neuroscience and behavioral economics to individual and organizational “wellness.” His strategy is specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of those individuals most at risk for preventable chronic illness but least likely to participate in traditional “diet and exercise” programs. He is a monthly wellness guest columnist and you can see his columns in the first NCHN e-News of the month or right here on the blog.

Leadership and Organizational Health:
Why Wellness Doesn't Work

Does this sound familiar?

“Every year we do Health Risk Assessments, offer on-line coaching and support and have a health fair.  And every year we have health insurance premium increases because our high-risk employees aren’t changing their behavior and every year there are more of them.”

Unfortunately this sad refrain is something we hear more and more often when talking with leaders about their efforts to contain their employee healthcare costs.  The fact is that the vast majority of wellness programs fail to do what they’re intended to do: reduce healthcare costs.   

You may have seen a recent Reuters article about a RAND report prepared for HHS: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/24/us-wellness-idUSBRE94N0XX20130524  This article has created quite a bit of controversy and if you read it, you’ll see why. 

According to Reuters, the RAND report concludes that:

  • “Programs that try to get employees to become healthier and reduce medical costs have only a modest effect.” 
  • “People who participate in such programs lose an average of only one pound a year for three years.” 

If this is true, wellness programs aren’t delivering much “bang for the buck.” According to the latest figures available, the average cost of traditional wellness programs is over $170 per employee year and companies are spending an average of $521 on program incentives.  So, according to the RAND study, these companies are spending almost $700 per employee to achieve a one pound weight loss!  That’s a terrible R.O.I.  It’s no wonder so many organizations suffer from what we call “wellness fatigue.”  They know they need to address the declining health status of their organization, but despite these considerable costs, there’s hardly any return.

So, what can we do?  Well, we can start to be a little more logical about what it takes to actually “move the needle” on an organization’s escalating employee health cost curve. 

If the “Godfather of Logic,” Aristotle were writing this article, he might put it like this:

  • If we want to bend the cost-curve, we must change outcomes.
  • If we want to change outcomes, we must change behavior.
  • If we want to change behavior, we must change the way we think.
  • If we want to change the way we think, we must instill two beliefs:
    • This is worth doing     (I’m motivated)
    • I can do this    (I’m confident )

After all, that’s only logical, right? 

So here’s my take-away for the Reuters article:

  • “Traditional wellness barely scratches the surface.”
  • "The strongest predictor of whether someone will lose weight or stop smoking is how motivated they are."
  • “Initiatives succeed if they have senior level support and a high degree of employee engagement in healthier behaviors.”

If visible, authentic leadership wasn’t essential to a successful initiative, we wouldn’t be doing this column.  And if you attended our presentation in New Orleans, you know that without genuine, sustainable participant engagement, we won’t change outcomes:  http://youtu.be/4H-cNGMyYJY

Think of it this way.  “Before we can get in shape from the neck-down, we need to get in shape from the neck-up,” and the “same-old, same-old” way of doing things keeps missing this unalterable fact.

And as far as Aristotle is concerned, what was true back in 350 B.C.E. is still true today.  But it makes me wonder, if Aristotle was around today, would he be an Apple or P.C. guy and do you think he would bother to Google himself?

Next month:  Why “Nuts and Bolts” beats “Bells and Whistles.” Every Time.

If you have questions or issues you would like us to address in this column, contact: Jay Seifert at 512-894-3440 or jseifert@lonestartnow.com.    

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