The thought behind this article is rooted in a common idiom that goes something like, "you can't see the forest for the trees." A useful phrase, this idiom's aim is to communicate a short-circuit in an individual's ability to see things with a broad perspective, through "big-picture lenses." However, a common error in the corporate wellness arena is precisely the opposite; we fail to focus on the trees because our gaze is so fixed on the forest.
Better put, too often our default concern revolves more around mass programming, a return on investment, or a similar "grand-scheme metric," (the forest) than on the individuals (the trees) with whom we are working to get a return. In other words, we tend to care more about our numbers than our people. When this happens, we have lost sight of what is most important.
Wellness in the Air vs. Wellness on the Ground
This section will borrow some of the language used in a book entitled, The Explicit Gospel, written by authors Matt Chandler and Jared C. Wilson, in which they outline two important perspectives to be used in regards to the subject matter about which they write. These two perspectives, "on the ground" and "in the air," will be adapted so as to provide relevant application to this rather common corporate wellness conundrum.
To put it concisely, "wellness in the air" is the broad, long-term, aerial view of a wellness program and its impact, particularly on the company's costs, while "wellness on the ground" refers more to the day-to-day engagement of the program's participants. The remainder of this article will be devoted to stating the case against spending too much time "in the air."
Wellness in the Air
While spending time "in the air" is absolutely necessary, and actually quite beneficial when administered well and in appropriate doses, there does appear to be a negative correlation between a hyper-preoccupation with wellness program metrics and the intended effectiveness of the wellness program.
There are at least three problems that generally sprout up when a wellness program is weighted too heavily in this direction. First, and arguably most important, a wellness program with too broad a focus is often guilty of being impersonal. While this may not seem too alarming, the idea that a wellness program should possess some form of personalization is gaining traction within the industry.
Although difficult and uncomfortable at times, human beings were created with an inherent need for personal interaction - to "live in community" with one another. In fact, although social isolation is not the overarching issue being discussed in this article, its effect can logically be applied to expending too much energy on an impersonal wellness program, one whose sights are set "in the air" too regularly.
Studies continue to show, with increasing impact, that social isolation produces cognitive atrophy, a wasting away or progressive decline of mental faculties ("atrophy"). While an impersonal wellness program won't likely produce cognitive atrophy, or any form of atrophy for that matter, it most definitely will not generate much engagement or any notable health improvement in its participants.
And as it pertains to health and wellness, the old saying, "if you're not moving forward you're moving backward," could not be more accurate. We want our employees moving forward with their health, or progressing towards an enhanced level of well-being, and a focus too heavily concerned with metrics, or an impersonal one, simply won't yield those results.
A second problem with a program whose gaze is aimed too frequently at the metrics behind the wellness program, particularly the financial return, is that observing a return on investment and other similar measures is a long-suffering process - it takes time, and typically lots of it.
A regular revisit with these figures very often reveals very little in terms of improved returns and can, quite honestly, plant seeds of doubt surrounding the validity of the company's wellness program. While expecting a financial return is a legitimate aim and an actual probability, assuming the wellness program is effective, those in the wellness arena can attest to the fact that the return runs much deeper than mere financial metrics.
Lives are impacted, and although the observation of decreased health-related costs can be a tangible benefit of that impact, there are a whole host of "immeasurable" benefits that aren't, and can't be, represented on a company's balance sheet. In other words, return on investment, and other metrics, will never tell the whole story and should not be the only plumb line by which a wellness program is measured.
Making our way back to the agricultural language that we started with, the third and final point to be made in this section of the discussion is the fact that you cannot grow a healthy, thriving forest without nurturing each individual tree according to its specific needs - this will serve as a perfect segue into the next section, "wellness on the ground."
Consider two scenarios, if you will. In the first, imagine being responsible for the care of a large forest containing a diverse population of hundreds of trees. You determine that your primary tactic for nourishing those trees will be to rent a plane, load it up with water, fertilizer, and pesticides (environmental friendly, of course) and perform a couple fly-over's per month, bathing your forest in nutriments, hoping that doing so will spark healthy growth.
This parallels a common "wellness in the air" approach that programs for the masses, simply hoping for a financial return. Now, I'm no forestry expert but it's clear to me that, although this method may produce a healthy tree here or there, it does not provide the care to each individual tree, or employee, that they require, especially considering the diversity of the trees within the forest - this proves true with wellness programming as well.
Scenario two is similar in that you're responsible for the care of the same diverse forest. However, your method in this scenario is to deploy helpers to personally water, fertilize, and de-weed their allotted groups of trees. You instruct them to get on their hands and knees and nourish and care for each individual tree, according to its specific need; a great depiction of a ground-level corporate wellness effort.
The intent behind using this parabolist language here is to illuminate for the reader the stark contrast between these two approaches to corporate wellness. Although the language thus far has been largely negative towards a wellness emphasis too centered "in the air," the fact of the matter is that both "in the air" and "on the ground" efforts are necessary to the effective roll-out of an impactful program; the key is balance. And balance, in the case of a corporate wellness program, does not necessarily mean equal - let me explain.
Wellness on the Ground
As mentioned earlier, a key factor contributing to the success of a corporate wellness program is the company's willingness to maintain a sense of balance between their "in the air" efforts and their "on the ground" efforts. But balance does not mean equality. The argument that is being alluded to here is that if you want healthy, robust "in the air" metrics, your wellness efforts must be weighted more heavily "on the ground."
So, while balance is vital, balance in corporate wellness is only achieved when the scale is leaning more distinctly in the direction of ground-level engagement. Wellness "on the ground" is personal, it creates a connection, encourages accountability, and very regularly elicits positive change - it is the most valuable attribute of a corporate wellness program.
The fact of the matter is that there is very little opportunity to impact an entire population if your program doesn't spend time engaging people at the individual level. Without the ground-level nourishing and, when necessary, pruning, of each individual tree, your forest will not burgeon the way in which you intend: Many trees will become brittle, they may wither, and there will quite possibly be a recurrent need to plant new ones.
So build your team, deploy your troops, and engage your employees on a ground-level, individualized basis. When the trees receive proper attention, the forest thrives. Invest in the health of your employees, engage them individually, help impact them personally, and, in time, watch as those "in the air" metrics follow suit. Nourish the trees and the forest will flourish.
Jordan Wootten is the Manager of Wellness Programming at Senior Care Centers, the largest long-term care company in the state of Texas. Jordan works closely with company employees, as well as the residents located at each of the company's long-term care facilities.
During his stead, Senior Care Centers has been recognized as one of North Texas' healthiest employers by the Dallas Business Journal. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Health and Kinesiology, a Master of Business Administration degree with a focus on Healthcare Management, and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer.
“atrophy.”Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 June 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atrophy>.
Chandler, Matt and Wilson, Jared C. The Explicit Gospel. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012. Print.