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Don's report archive

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Worksite Wellness: Can REAL Wellness Give It New Life?

Tuesday September 16, 2008


"If you don't want to work you have to work to earn enough money so that you won't have to work." ~Ogden Nash

"There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there." ~Indira Gandhi

The other day, a company executive asked me about the future of workplace wellness programs. Before I could answer, he noted that his organization's spending on wellness had little effect on unhealthy employees, particularly those with weight problems. He said, "In fact, since we started, those with hazardous lifestyles have gotten worse."

How could this be? Why would risk factors, like waistline and BMI levels increase, not diminish, with the experience of company wellness programming?

One reason is the phenomenon, often discussed here, of "the icantdoit syndrome," the reality that living sensibly and practicing healthy lifestyles is hard, demanding and out of reach for most. Employees who do not respond as desired to worksite wellness efforts apparently lack sufficient support, desire, knowledge, innate capacity and/or preparation to exercise positive life practices.

Glenn Cardwell, an Australian dietitian and nutritionist, wrote about this situation in his September 2008 Nutrition Impact online newsletter: "I can sympathize with those who find themselves overweight. It is hard enough to lose it, but then maintaining a lower weight still requires discipline. Just like climate change, it's an inconvenient truth. As such I don't see any easy answer to either issue. Maybe ... those who find the discipline difficult need a life coach. Maybe we need community weight-loss clubs with volunteer coaches, similar to sports clubs."

If healthy life practices are so difficult to manage, why should companies even bother spending good money on wellness programs? Why pretend workers can succeed, if they can't? This resignation reflects the thinking of my executive friend, who seemed resigned to the futility of motivating and otherwise stimulating and supporting workers to succeed with healthy choices. He added: "Maybe spending money on prevention and health promotion is really a waste of time and resources."

Naturally, the typical wellness promoter would respond to this argument by suggesting that worksite wellness has been convincingly shown to render an attractive return on investment, despite its limitation with hard cases. In addition, a well-informed advocate for worksite wellness would note that it's more likely that the executive company had not invested enough resources on the right interventions to realize the desired impacts. In this case as so often occurs, the difficulties of effecting healthy lifestyles are usually underappreciated.

I urged the company leader to consider other ways of framing his questions. I thought this is what he basically wanted to know: "Why in blazes have employees not embraced wellness lifestyles? Why have they not realized significant advances in health and happiness? Since their employers have invested time and energy, and a small amount of money, in health promotion programs for their benefit, why have they not reformed their ways accordingly? Even if worksite wellness programs are poorly designed and under-funded and completely ignore REAL wellness issues, why have they not brought about revolutionary changes? Have these shiftless, ingrate employees no common sense or decency, responsibility, ambition or drive?"

OK, I was being sarcastic. My point was "what else could you expect?"

Why should company managers expect lifestyle changes based on the nature of what was offered? The focus has been on morbidity, health care utilization and costs, not wellness awareness, attitudes and behaviors and the quest for high quality lifestyles that enable exuberance and pleasure.

The gains will always be limited if the offerings remain as omnibus tinkering with prevention and health education. Lifestyle change is nearly impossible for most, even under the best of circumstances. Tidbits of programming at the workplace have not and do not hold much promise, in my view. Spending on health promotion is too little, too late and most of all not really about wellness at all, but rather about medical testing and other unimaginative efforts that will not modify the intractable lifestyle habits of most workers.

For real change, including weight loss, look to REAL wellness. There is plenty of information about that kind of wellness in essays posted at this site during the past several months. Visit the archives and note the differences in the real thing with the typical medically-focused worksite wellness program. It's quite dramatic.

Be well. Always look on the bright side of life.

Note: Some features of this essay were taken from an earlier article entitled, "Worksite Wellness: Is There Any Hope?" that appeared here on September 17, 2006.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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