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The Future of Wellness

Michael Prager

Looking behind the door into the future.

There are two ways to forecast the future:

  1. Talk to leaders in the fields you’re interested in, and ask what’s coming.
  2. Guess

Taking wisdom from no less than author Jules Verne and author/physicist Michio Kaku, let’s stick with No. 1 to assess where corporate wellness is headed.

Susan Tufts thinks that one of the big changes will come not from her health and wellness colleagues, but from the people they work to support.

“Health is becoming more than just how you look, but how you’re able to live your life,” especially as people realize they may have many productive years after they retire, said Tufts, health and wellness manager at L.L.Bean, the Maine outdoor-equipment purveyor. “It’s not, ‘Hey, I’m 10 pounds overweight,’ it’s ‘I’m at risk for diabetes.’”

Her viewpoint is particularly valuable, because not only has she been at work in her field for almost 30 years, but L.L.Bean was so far ahead of the wellness curve when it began wellness-oriented employee outreach that the curve hadn’t developed yet.

Tufts said, “For Leon Gorman, who was president back in the ‘80s when they started the wellness program, it certainly wasn’t commonplace in the corporate world. He did it because he felt it was the right thing to do.”

Tom Sondergeld, senior director global benefits at Walgreen Co., echoes the opinion that wellbeing will “become more and more a part of the lifestyle of the country.” That condition will both boost and be boosted by technologies that support the pursuit of wellness.

“The tools that tie people to measuring wellness and wellbeing — the Fitbits, the measuring devices, health and wellness tools that are in your phone — that are just part of your lifestyle,” will become more acceptable and easier to use, said Sondergeld, who has lead responsibility for the health and wellbeing of 400,000 employees.

It could be that only the trend’s forward edge is showing so far, but to Kembre Roberts of Southwest Airlines, even that edge is already carving change for the carrier’s 46,000 employees.

“I think having that instant gratification, that you’ve accomplished something daily, is quite a bit different than how we were tracking fitness and nutrition through logbooks or online log recorders. It just didn’t have that same competitive nature,” said Roberts, Southwest’s manager of wellness for four years.

Sondergeld also foresees the broadening of another trend. “I think that our focus on total wellbeing, which includes the financial and health and physical and mental wellbeing of someone, will get better, and I think the resources will get better,” he said.

Katie Sarver has been promoting that approach at Indiana University Health La Porte Hospital, where she is wellness outreach program manager. “We do our best to take a more wholistic approach. We have financial counselors come in and help people. We have a director of spiritual care, who you can meet with if you want to. We have church services in our chapel. We have fitness, and nutrition, and diabetic education. And we do colleague and family events.”

In addition to being whole people with many inner facets, acknowledgement is growing that sustaining change for individuals requires including key members of their social environments, most obviously the family.

“I think many organizations emphasize the importance on impacting the family as a whole,” Sarver said. “In 2015, we’re working a little harder to figure out how we can engage a spouse or a child of a colleague, so they can have that support system at home, as well as the support system at work.

Roberts, who has been working in wellness for 15 years, said the wellness community has long understood the importance of the whole view, and what’s new is that “now it’s just being recognized at a corporate level.”

“There’s just an appreciation for seeing rising health care costs and other areas that are not specifically focused on obesity, or certain chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes or cancer. [They see] that we’ve really got to focus on depression, and anxiety, and how much that’s impacting corporations, whether from a productivity level or just from an overall healthcare cost.

“Focusing on stress management, or sleep management, making sure that employee has a great experience, is something that I think the wellness industry has been trying to promote, but you had to get past the idea that stress management wasn’t just going to yoga and meditation.

“It’s really focused on what an employee really needs, all the way around,” Roberts added.

Is the term for this corner of corporate care all that important? Susan Tufts doesn’t think so. “We still call our program a wellness program, but we’ve always included emotional wellbeing in that. I think when someone says wellbeing, they’re trying to be broader and more encompassing. In my mind, it’s what you do with your program, not what you call your program.”

Sarver and Roberts were among six executives recognized as 2014 Corporate Wellness Champions. 

Michael Prager is an author, journalist, and wellness innovator who works with smart companies to boost wellness-program participation and help employees achieve lasting change.

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