How to Create and Nurture a Wellness Culture

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Employers are finally starting to understand that employee wellness can help achieve important business objectives, yet many companies still have not implemented an employee wellness program. So, if the potential benefits are so wonderful, why would any corporation not take advantage of a wellness program? The truth is that while it is important to have healthy, happy and engaged employees to improve productivity and lower health care costs, it's not that easy to establish and maintain a wellness culture.


Only the organizations that truly adopt wellness as a part of their business philosophy are the ones that see the returns. Organizations that just "check the box" to offer wellness often end up terminating the program because they don't see the results. Below I'll share some important ways that organizations can implement a program that will not only be embraced by their employees, but will also become a part of their culture for years to come.


Understand the dynamics of change

One key factor in implementing a wellness program is the ability to enact change within an organization. It is critical for leaders at the organization to view this change as necessary and potentially challenging, but ultimately beneficial for many reasons. From an organizational perspective the need for change is easily supported by rising health care costs. These costs can be controlled and even reduced by implementing an integrated wellness program.


Influencing individuals' perception for the need to change, however, isn't always as straightforward. What one may see as an obvious need for change may be completely unnecessary to another. It all depends on each employee's highly subjective set of needs, desires, knowledge and motivation-commonly referred to as a person's readiness level.


Plan a systematic approach for change

To implement an effective wellness program, organizations must determine their employees' readiness levels, examine the population's cultural elements and prepare to communicate openly with employees about the changes that will happen as a result of the new programs.

Readiness to change

The Readiness to Change (RTC) model, also known as the transtheoretical model, was developed by James Prochaska and is a widely researched and proven approach to help both individual and organizational transformation. In essence, this model teaches that an organization's ability to influence the voluntary lifestyle behavior of a group of people depends, in large part, on the population's readiness for change.


The lower a person's or group's readiness level, the more important it is to properly set the stage for a major personal or cultural transformation. However, taking time to implement a systematic approach to prepare for this transformation is perhaps the most important yet overlooked element in creating effective wellness programs.


Examining cultural elements

Planning a systemic and effective wellness program also must take into account the range of cultural elements that may be present in a company's population. If you simply focus on the company's readiness level and implement an on-site program for a geographically dispersed millennial population, participation and engagement will still likely be low. You must also understand how people like to learn: online, on-site, telephonically or even through social media and smartphone applications.


Communicate goals and changes clearly and methodically

I have seen remarkable results and long-term benefits when an organization creates a culture of wellness over time. In one instance, I was working with an organization with a high level of tobacco use. As is often the case, many of the employees that used tobacco did not show a willingness to change. For that reason, we approached the issue slowly and sensitively, making small changes over time to help employees first develop an interest in changing their current habits.


Initially, we focused on educating these employees on the dangers of tobacco use and set a "Tobacco-Free Campus" goal. Then, we implemented access to a Tobacco Quitline and provided free nicotine replacement (including patches, gum and lozenges) for all enrolled. Next, we added prescription strength cessation drug coverage, and finally, we provided a $30 per paycheck incentive to both tobacco-free employees and those signed up for the Tobacco Quitline.


In just a few years, this organization saw a 32% reduction in tobacco use among its employees. The multi-model approach really paid off as employees were encouraged to utilize a method of support that worked well for them, such as telephonic lifestyle coaching, online support, print materials and even face-to-face counseling.


Assess the need for education at every step

Even seemingly small changes can have disastrous results if a population is not properly prepared to make a change. A couple years ago I didn't heed my own advice and I removed all unhealthy snacks from the vending machines and replaced them with healthier options before exploring the effect such a dramatic change would have on the employees.


The following week, I was surprised to see some setting up candy shops and swaps in the parking lot. I quickly realized that employees at this organization would need more time and education on the benefits of this wellness initiative before they would be ready to change their behavior.


Create tools for motivating individuals

Accurately assessing your organization's readiness to change and need for education is often only half the battle. Nudging your employees to embrace a wellness culture can be just as great a challenge. I've found that the key to successful implementation and growth of a wellness culture is a balance between individualized motivation, well-designed incentives and team-based support.


Once the initial excitement over the implementation of a wellness program wears off, employees often put wellness on the back burner and quickly revert back to their old ways. One key strategy to combat apathy toward wellness is to set specific wellness goals when the program is implemented and consistently remind employees of their individual and organizational wellness goals and accomplishments.


By implementing programs that measure individual and organizational progress, your wellness culture can continually play a key role in your employees' everyday lives. Incorporate team support into your program The power of social relationships and team-based support for a culture of wellness cannot be overstated. For long-term benefits, all workplace wellness programs need to incorporate elements that focus on having individuals motivate and encourage each other.


In one company I worked with, weight management was the top priority - 62% of the employees were at risk and 74% of the high risk were ready to change. To encourage weight loss, we implemented a physical activity program that utilized a social networking and engagement strategy to promote a team-based exercise, weight loss and walking competition for employees of all fitness levels.


Employees worked together to increase physical activity and lose weight; supporting, motivating, challenging each other and even reporting outcomes as they achieved both individual and group goals. As part of this program, participants tracked their weight loss, exercise hours and pedometer steps. This ensured that a variety of competitive categories were available for employees of all fitness levels and that participants were focusing on a comprehensive lifestyle change.


The team structure was a hit with more than half of the company's employees enrolling. In the end, the full group of participants lost almost 4,000 pounds total (an average of 5.7 pounds each), walked 8,008 steps per day on average and exercised an average of 44 minutes each day.


Continue to make wellness a priority

In working to establish wellness programs for multiple companies in various lines of business, I've learned that in one form or another, all of these elements are essential to motivating an organization to effectively build wellness into its culture and achieve positive change. While most wellness initiatives start out as a priority for the organization, the most successful ones are those that maintain their momentum and focus on the long-term strategy.


Creating a culture of wellness is the first step; nurturing it for long-term individual and business benefit is the ongoing work of organizational leaders and employees who choose to make wellness a top priority.

About the Author

Colleen Reilly is the founder and president of Total Well-Being, a leading provider of workplace wellness programs with a holistic approach to wellness-providing services that motivate employees to achieve their physical, financial, personal and professional wellness goals.