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The Role of Education in Health and Wellness Programs

Jay B. Rea

An apple on a teachers desk with a pencil, a blackboard and chalk in the background.

All across America, corporations are implementing Health & Wellness programs, seeing the immense potential in having a healthier, more productive workforce. With more than 75 percent of a company’s healthcare and productivity costs derived from employee lifestyle choices, it is imperative that wellness programs are implemented in a strategic fashion, aimed at actually increasing employee health and reducing choice-related illnesses, while protecting the company’s bottom line.

The question then becomes: which strategy provides the best method of attack? Companies implement programs such as group walking or “lunch and learn” sessions; they hang posters reminding employees to make healthier choices; they hire counselors, coaches, and trainers to demonstrate the value of exercise, a healthy diet, managing stress or quitting smoking. They even offer various kinds of rewards and incentives when goals are met and commitments kept.

However, many companies find they meet significant resistance from their employees when it comes to actually participating in a Health & Wellness program. Resources are then spent to incentivize the workforce and make it more appealing to join the effort. Why the resistance? What strategy will provide the best long-term, lasting change that will truly motivate workers to change their lifestyle, and consistently make better choices? Which method will ultimately motivate workers towards improving their health, their work performance, and their employer’s healthcare budget? What is missing from the average Health & Wellness Program?

The answer lies in Education. Most Health & Wellness programs encourage a change without explaining why and how an action should be taken toward improving employee health. While it is essential to provide the means and encouragement to accomplish the goal, implement strong calls to action, and even to reward good choices, people need to understand the core reasons the change is good for them in the first place. If the goal is to lose weight, for instance, the person must start with understanding that carrying even a few extra pounds places them at risk for weight-related illnesses. Then they can tackle the nuts and bolts of diet and exercise. If the employee needs to quit smoking, they need to understand why it is bad for them—which will help motivate them to stop, even as they are discovering the most effective way to quit.

Proper health education addresses the core component to effective change, that is, the internal will and motivation to make the change. The decisions, habits and lifestyle choices which led to the health problems in the first place, have become very comfortable in the employee’s life. Until they are willing to abandon their current status quo, they will be unwilling—perhaps even unable—to make any long-term changes. That current comfort level must be challenged and convincingly demonstrated to be something that is not working to their advantage—something that must change.

Education addresses this internal motivation by teaching the why of change. When a person has become used to their extra 10 pounds, it is part of their status quo. Sure, they might like to lose it, but, after all, it’s “only” 10 to 20 pounds, and besides, they would have to get up earlier to exercise.  They would have to reduce—or even eliminate—some of their favorite foods. When they learn that those extra 10 pounds increase their risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other weight-related illnesses, they understand why it is so important to take steps to lose the weight. This understanding, coupled with an effective strategy for accomplishing the weight loss, has a far better chance of success than a how-to course alone. Techniques for taking the steps to better health and sticking with it must be inserted, understood and retained in a person’s brain.

So, why not simply mandate that certain behaviors will not be tolerated at work? Efforts to force employees to change will have only limited results. You can eliminate unhealthy foods from the vending machines in the break room, but without a personal commitment to change, unmotivated employees will still choose unhealthy snacks while away from work. A company-wide policy can be issued which prohibits smoking in the workplace, but the employee who is personally unconvinced that they need to change is still likely to light up the minute they get in the car to go home.

Making changes toward healthier living also requires accepting personal responsibility for one’s own health and well-being. There is a very strong emotional and psychological connection to personal care habits which require a high level of personal diligence and commitment to overcome. As already noted, an employer cannot force total compliance with a healthier lifestyle, but they can provide the tools to encourage personal responsibility.  Proper education points out where changes are needed and where the employee needs to take personal action to improve their health.

It takes a great deal of efforts and conscious energy to create a change in behavior patterns, especially those that are ingrained over the course of a lifetime. Health education makes the case that the change is necessary, and the benefits are worth the enormous amount of physical, emotional, and psychological effort required to break bad habits.  The employee must also incorporate new routines—to consistently make better, healthier choices. Education becomes the momentum needed to break the status quo and strive for new levels of health and well-being.

Initial health education makes the difference in the employee’s choices and dedication to the process of change. Simply saying “Let’s all work together to get healthier, come sign up for the new health and wellness program” is not enough. Starting your Health and Wellness program with an educational program showing both the dangers of remaining unhealthy and the benefits of incorporating the new healthy behaviors into their lives can make all the difference in the employee’s personal level of motivation and commitment to the cause. This can in turn increase participation, which can result in Health & Wellness dollars being spent with the most long-term effect.

Awareness of the problem alone may motivate the employee, but not give them the tools for success; handing them the tool chest without a clear understanding of why they should use it may get them to go through the motions, but not result in any real change. Combining an educational program with practical steps and rewards for reaching the goals will result in a much more effective, long-term strategy for tackling lifestyle-related illnesses. Understanding why to implement a needed change along with how to do it, and then being handed the tools to accomplish the goal in the workplace can have a positive impact on employee participation in the Health & Wellness Program.

It all begins with education.

About the Author

Jay B. Rea founded TheAcademy.com to produce Internet-based e-training programs for corporate, public and industry training. TheAcademy.com has developed numerous techniques and software systems to effectively train today’s workforce via the Internet, including the Guides to Health, addressing personal health and wellness. For more information, visit www. TheAcademy.com.

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