Business of Well-being

If You Want Wellness, Teach Wellness

Presentations under the heading of corporate wellness often address stress management, smoking cessation, nutrition and exercise. Great topics all, but at best, they're subsets of wellness. Related, surely, but I say: If you want wellness in your organization, teach wellness!

I found my passion for this viewpoint the usual way: I learned it through extended travail, followed by eventual triumph. I spent significant time in three of those silos, but most intensely with obesity. For better than 30 years I was either fat, obese, losing a lot of weight, or gaining it all back.

My highest weight was 365, recorded upon entering the eating disorders unit of a psychiatric hospital in 1991. By that time, I'd lost more than 350 pounds altogether, so clearly losing weight wasn't my issue, but I'd earned an F' in sustaining healthful change. Studies report that the same result is befalling too many corporate wellness programs.

In the worst cases, siloed efforts produce short-term change or no change at all. But, even in better outcomes, the best claim possible is that the employee has become less unwell. It is well documented that people who stop one bad habit often backslide or pick up another one, if the impulse underlying the unhealthy behavior isn't addressed.

In some circles, this phenomenon is known as "switching deck chairs on the Titanic." Another fault of the approach is that the most positive pitch that made to employees is, essentially, "we'll help you to stop doing that bad thing." It's hardly a rallying cry, even while, undeniably, exercising more regularly and quitting smoking are good decisions.

Perhaps this attention to "less bad" helps explain why, even though 92 percent of companies over 200 employees offer wellness programming, only around 20 percent of employees participate. Wellness is infectious, but first workers have to buy in.

What if wellness programmers taught wellness by making a specific case for the self-interested benefits that accrue from focusing forward, toward community, collaboration, and service? Even if it is a counterintuitive, or even unpopular notion, they can bring personal and mutual reward simultaneously.

Experiencing that is what changed me from a weight loser to health gainer. Emphatically, I had no idea I was on a wellness journey. I had no more wisdom than the willingness to take the smallest first steps, recommended by others whose credibility rested on their own sustained change.

Now that I've moved beyond the beginning of that continuum, I'm in a position to pay it forward, as those others did for me. I am able to demonstrate that when I stopped focusing only on myself, I connected with my first girlfriend (ugh, it's true, I was 36). I met my special someone. We got married.

We adopted a boy whose brightness and warmth approaches the sun's. I was hired by the Boston Globe; filed stories from Oaxaca, Havana, and (almost) Madrid. I was promoted to section editor. I took the leap of faith to leave the paper for family and other reasons, wrote and published a book, wrote a second book, and embarked on this mission of sustainable wellness outreach.

Oh, yes. I am also sustaining a 155-pound loss for 23 years. By *not* focusing only on my primary bad habit and its effects. I must concede that if I had known every twist in the path before I embarked, I might not have been willing.

I'm not sure I would have believed I could or would reap such reward. That's why I'm convinced that the "right" first step is any first step, ideally taken with one or more others for mutual support. Then, staying engaged with what comes next.

About the Author

Michael Prager is a wellness innovator who shares his insights with smart companies and associations who want to learn and implement wellness and engagement techniques that work.

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