Corporate Wellness Programs Need Total Redesign: From Focus on Health to Values

The New Year first-days headlines in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other newspapers across the land were silent on corporate or any other kind of wellness. Instead, news banners featured floods, wars, earthquakes, deficits state and federal, drilling in the Gulf and other economic and social developments, mostly having to do with calamities and bad behaviors by one cluster of homo sapiens or another. Not much good news in the kinds of stories publishers saw fit to print.

I think it would be good to call a bit more attention to the bright side of life in this New Year. For instance, I’d like to read more about paths to positive human behavior. The ways people treat themselves and each other simply have to get better in 2011 – or else. (Never mind or else what? I’m trying to be upbeat and would rather not think about consequences if or else comes to pass.)

Let’s look at the nature of wellness, in particular how the concept has been and might be translated and promoted at worksite institutions. Most major companies are still subsidizing health insurance for their full-time employees, so it would pay to focus on reforms that might well be in order for corporate wellness.

For over 30 years, nearly all mid-size and large companies have offered incentives for employees to make better lifestyle choices. For the most part, these initiatives emphasized remedies for mitigating medical problems (e.g., risk factors such as overweight, smoking and the like) while promoting healthy practices (e.g., better nutrition, exercise and stress management). All well and good but the returns for employees and sponsoring organizations have been modest. For one thing, not everyone is interesting in participating-and such programs cannot be mandatory.

A better strategy might be to address wellness values and ethics. If a wellness philosophy were integrated into the company mission and purposes, as well as specific processes, policies and objectives, a healthy and more effective workforce might ensue.

What might that entail, you ask? The following are elements of a wellness value system. Consider the elements of this philosophy and you will understand that this is not a health program. It is a value statement.

To chose a wellness perspective is to assume responsibility for the quality of your life. Wellness is a mindset, a predisposition to adopt a series of key principles in varied life areas that lead to high levels of well-being and life satisfaction.

A consequence of this focus is that a wellness mindset will protect you against temptations to blame someone else, make excuses, shirk accountability, whine or wet your pants in the face of adversity. (I threw that in to help you remember this explanation.)

Wellness is an alternative to dependency on doctors and drugs, to complacency, to mediocrity and to self-pity, boredom and slothfulness.

Many wellness promoters, myself included, see wellness as a philosophy that embraces many principles for good health. The areas most closely affected by your wellness commitments include self-responsibility, exercise and fitness, nutrition, stress management, critical thinking, meaning and purpose, emotional intelligence, a passion for exuberant living (versus settling for coping and survival) and effective relationships.

Wellness entails a conscious commitment to positive outcomes; it embraces taking actions and respecting principles for optimal functioning in all these areas.

The term wellness is different from holistic health, prevention, health education and health promotion. Holistic health is treatment-oriented and practiced by healer-types. Prevention is oriented to not having something unpleasant happen- the avoidance of disease, as opposed to the pursuit of physical and psychological excellence. Health education is about doctor’s “orders” or other forms of sound health/medical matters; health promotion is an umbrella term for everything from risk reduction to employee assistance in institutional settings.

In the mid-seventies, I wrote a popular book entitled High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease. The alternative was to live in such a way that you minimize chances of getting sick in first place. This meant functioning in ways that strengthen immunity so that illness is less likely and shorter-lasting when and if it does occur.

A related idea is to be wary of deceptive labels. Take, for example, the illusion of health insurance. Payments to doctors and insurance companies can not insure health – only living healthfully can do that. Health insurance is actually a system of payments for medical services. The latter does not make you well; it only pays for illness care.

The paradox of health is that while we are living longer, we are not living in a manner consistent with the highest possible quality of life. And a lot of people, it seems, would sooner worry about this situation than act so as to be healthier. In some way, we are doing better and feeling worse, to use Aaron Wildavsky’s famous phrase.

Familiarize yourself with the nature of being well. There is more to being a healthy person than not being sick. But, how many could describe what that more entails? Having clear conceptions of health at the heights of well-being make it more likely that mediocrity will not be found acceptable. Recent studies in Australia and classic research done earlier in this country by Maslow, Otto, and others can provide insights on what wellness looks and feels like.

The research suggests that the wellest of the well – people judged by peers as the healthiest people, possessed the following qualities to an uncommon degree:

* A high self-esteem and a positive outlook.

* A foundation philosophy and a sense of purpose.

* A strong sense of personal responsibility.

* A good sense of humor and plenty of fun in life.

* A concern for others and a respect for the environment.

* A conscious commitment to personal excellence.

* A sense of balance and an integrated lifestyle.

* Freedom from addictive behaviors of a negative or health-inhibiting nature.

* A capacity to cope with whatever life presents and to continue to learn.

* Grounded in reality.

* A highly conditioned and physically fit body.

* A capacity to love and an ability to nurture.

* A capacity to manage life demands and communicate effectively.

How are you doing in these areas, and what will it take to do more in some of them that might invite further attention? Here are ten suggestions for getting started thinking about things from a wellness perspective:

1. Advice can come from many sources but ultimately you must make decisions-and accept responsibility for having done so.

2. Be consciously aware of and express your unique talents and passions in some manner.

3. Come to terms with the fact that change is inevitable and happening fast.

4. Your lifestyle choices, including your attitudes/beliefs/emotional responses and actions, will have more impact on your health, work and performance than any doctors or other elements of the medical system, including ObamaCare.

5. Life is too important to be experienced grimly. Whatever your choices, make sure you’re having enough fun.

6. Modern medicine’s a wonderful thing but there are two problems: people expect too much of it and too little of themselves.

7. Balance is a good thing and a worthy goal but there are times when you have to put it aside to pursue a passion over time, a heroic quest or other short-term goal that takes too much time and energy to permit the maintenance of balance. Be flexible.

8. It’s better to take up healthy practices than to give up unhealthy habits.

9. Lifestyle quality is seldom achieved by accident-you have to make a choice to live and work this way.

10. It’s never too late to start a wellness lifestyle. Even if you are 100. Or older.

Good luck. Frank Smith noted that “time’s winged chariot hurries near and vast deserts of eternity lay beyond” and Robert Green Ingersoll expressed the same idea this way in a letter dated November 28, 1880: “The world goes on and the swift years pass and the end approaches. The wall in front of each life recedes day by day, but suddenly it will stop, and the darkness will cover all… life is a mysterious thing.”