Business of Well-being

8 Truths to Boost Your Wellness Communication

Effective communication is the biggest difference-maker for organizations aiming to improve their employees' engagement, health, and productivity. Keep these timeless truths in mind as you design and implement your wellness program.

Offering health-related programs that align with corporate strategies and employee goals is smart, but those programs should be considered the icing. The cake - the foundation for behavior change and real progress - is creative, persuasive communication that gets people to notice the programs in the first place. But rather than receive spotlight treatment, communication is often an afterthought.  

A better strategy is to embrace a basic tenet of communication: No information can be absorbed, learned, used, or shared without a connection between two sides - a sender and a receiver. Organizations typically spend time thinking about the sender (their own wellness strategies) and about the receiver (what employees need to hear).

But they generally don't consider ways to maximize links between the two - how, when, and where to deliver targeted messages that resonate with each employee. After tapping into current research, recent discussions with clients and medical experts, and 30-plus years of experience in helping organizations create and deliver effective employee communication, Hope Health has identified eight "timeless truths" of communication that makes wellness programs much more engaging and valuable.

It's important to rely on these building blocks - ageless communication concepts that are mistakenly ignored, but undeniably critical:

1. A flawed plan well communicated is better than a perfect plan poorly communicated.

Many organizations build wellness programs that include well-crafted options and best-practice strategies. The plans look excellent on paper. So why are engagement and enrollment top concerns of wellness program directors? Why are so many people sedentary? Why don't we walk a little more? Why don't we do the simple things - like eat smaller portions?

Why did Dr. Dana E. King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, recently analyze Americans' overall health in the past two decades and issue a C-minus grade? (That's an expensive C-minus.) We won't begin to improve until we start thinking about communication at the same time we devise program details and options.

Having a mighty, feature-rich, seemingly amazing wellness plan or benefits package is useless if employees aren't aware of the value. A great plan poorly communicated is like a fantastic sound system that lacks an "on" button. What good is it, really? Don't let workplace messages about healthcare, wellness, and benefits fall on deaf ears. Communication shouldn't be an afterthought. It should join the first thoughts.

2. If you think "plain language" is "dumbing down," you flatter yourself.

Businesses that want to sound "official" usually end up sounding egotistical or confusing. Their messages are filled with corporate-speak, jargon, and gobbledygook. The intent of their messages is lost in the delivery. Clarity is the main ingredient of effective communication. If your messages aren't obvious, they can't be understood. In fact, they might not even be read or heard.

This is especially true when a topic is viewed by employees as important but intricate (choosing a healthcare plan, understanding a health savings account, improving overall wellness, etc.). As a workplace communicator, you have the task of reaching a large variety of workers,including people who struggle to read, and those who can read but either don't take the time or simply tune out health information.  

"We can't keep focusing on our information instead of our readers," says Audrey Riffenburgh, founder and president of consultancy Plain Language Works, LLC. Clear communication is about focusing on what your readers need to know and then delivering that by making sure messages are relevant and understandable. Putting that communication in "plain language" doesn't mean you're "dumbing down" messages. It simply means you understand the importance of having employees receive them.

3. Creativity is a precursor to engagement.

People are motivated in different ways - some are won over with logic and reason, some are influenced by forces of emotion, and some need a healthy mix of both. One problem with conventional health communication is that it appeals to the head but not the heart. It targets the cranium when employees crave something else.  

It embodies science - statistics, studies, etc. - but lacks sentiment. Plenty of organizations have stats on the benefits of breathing exercises. Few organizations try to take their employees' breath away. Yet somewhere in your community, local chefs would love the opportunity to discuss healthy cooking with your employees.  

Amateur musicians and artists would apply their creativity to your health promotion goals. Organic farmers, pet lovers, niche writers, home gardeners, and videographers would appreciate an invitation, and they're right in your community. Invite these folks in, and they could inspire - not just inform - your audience.

4. Less is more. Think "telegraph message."

The average attention span of Americans today is roughly the time it has taken you to read this sentence. "You only have a minute to gain their attention" is an incorrect maxim. You have about 2.7 seconds. And then you have to keep their interest so they can act upon your communication? That's not easy, to say the least.  

You're trying to reach employees at the same time they're updating some files while instant messaging with co-workers while straightening up their desks while listening to a conference call. Do they have a minute? Actually, no. So how can you get employees to view - let alone read - your workplace communication?

Many employees turn a deaf ear to anything involving topics they don't understand fully. So when they see an email about important changes to the company's healthcare plan, for example, their tendency is to delay reading it until they absolutely must. (Example of a teaser that would get attention:  "Are your Rx prices changing next month?")

More companies and communities are realizing the antidote is a one-two combination - brevity and clarity. Think teasers. Think billboard. Make your messages easy and scannable.  Cut your articles to 100 words. Get your videos down to one minute, max. Stick to one concept.

Wellness Communication: Clarity is King

  • Getting technical and clinical. Some organizations try to show off their intelligence by distributing long articles or emails filled with jargon and legalese. Keep your messages simple and understandable.
  • Covering too much. Say it quick, and make it stick. Listen to seasoned radio sources (politicians, book authors, activists, for example) and notice how they are great at getting their point across in sound bites. Decide on your main concept and focus on getting that message across. Then stop.
  • Failing to highlight important copy. Cut the gist of your message down to an "elevator speech" you can describe in a sentence or two. Make those words the first ones readers see. Don't "bury" the point.
  • Creating brick walls of copy. Don't make readers scroll down several screens to read an email, and don't pass out an important internal brochure that lacks illustrations, charts, or tables. Include subheads, sidebars, pull quotes, boxes, and the like whenever possible, especially when presenting an idea that can be better understood visually on first glance.
  • Lecturing. Provide take-away value. Think "so what?"

5. People understand real risk, not relative risk.

Flip a coin. Call it. Heads or tails? You've got a 50% chance of being wrong (or right). And that's about the extent of what most of us understand about risk (chance). People don't understand risk factors. In fact, there are so many problems with "risk factors" as a basis for wellness programs, it's hard to know where to begin.  

One of the biggest problems is that we communicate in terms of relative risk (% of what?) rather than real risk (4 out of 1,000 people). A few years ago, a newspaper ran an advertisement that said, " reduces risk of heart attack by 36%." In smaller print below, we learned that 3% of patients in a study taking a placebo (sugar pill) had a heart attack compared with 2% of patients taking.

A better way of saying this: Out of 100 people, 97 who do not take will not have a heart attack. And out of 100 people, 98 people who take will not have a heart attack. Even many doctors don't think past relative risks statements. If someone tells you that you have a 40% less (or more) risk of something, ask them, "Compared to what?"  

If they can't answer, then there is no basis for a decision on a change in behavior or medication. Although we've used an example of a prescription drug, any discussion of risk presents the same communication challenge. It's best to avoid the subject unless it's communicated in real terms (X out of 100 or X out of 1,000).

We do believe real risk factors can play a meaningful role in the dialogue we have with people. But risk factors should not be the foundation of a wellness program. Instead, let's focus on the things in people's lives that create happiness, fulfillment, and connection to other people to create change - for example, family, renewal, personal growth and hope, instead of an abstract concept of relative risk factors. After all, we're only allowed a short time to get our messages across. Do we really want to burn up that time on a highly complex and problematic health concept?

6. Headlines and other "scannable" elements are critical.

Employees are literally surrounded by communication. On their desks, memos and faxes await response. On their computers, unread email messages mount, and instant messages ding. Corkboards have sticky notes, cell phones have missed calls, and ... what? You have an important health or benefits message to send?

Realistically, how can you get their eyes to see (and their neurons to fire) when their heads are spinning? It's hard to get your communication strategy in line when your messages are in line - single file, waiting their turn, behind a bombardment of others. A single-mode experience - listen to the radio or watch TV - has been replaced with diversions in the form of a deluge.  

We process information and experiences multi-modally. We can blog, text, chat, and watch a video all at the same time. So, in a world where attentions wander, many important workplace messages are "lost" on employees because they simply can't be found. They're missing in brick walls of text.

It's important to emphasize elements such as headlines, subheads, image captions,and call-outs, and to include bullets, lists, charts, and graphs. These "scannable" elements should represent at least half of the effort put into a communication piece. They'll actually be read; the rest will be seen based on individual interest.

7. Print communication will not disappear.

Imagine for a moment that we occupy a completely digital world, one in which no one has heard of printing. And then someone makes a discovery: There's a way to grow a substance that can be converted into a portable communications tool. This tool can be used, shared and - get this! - recycled later into a bench. Renewable? Recyclable? Portable?  Is this magic? It's paper.

But in today's real world, print is degraded for being environmentally hazardous, and it's downgraded for being un-cool. But it has been the world's No. 1 communications medium for so long, we tend to overlook its power. The print medium isn't dead, it's just changing. To maximize its effectiveness, you need to make print more timely and customized.

People trust print. It's credible. They feel comfortable using it. They can't fast-forward past it. Print doesn't delete. You don't need to charge it. Print is beautiful. It can draw the eye to content and photos with effects and papers that make readers want to touch and feel your message. Print enhances the impact of other media.

Direct mail, poster campaigns and brochures can lead people to websites, videos, and social media sites - and vice versa. We believe advertising, publishing, and entertainment industries will begin testing new tactics in print as part of a process of breaking through.

In a recent survey of HR directors, wellness professionals, and benefit managers we recently conducted, 76% of respondents will continue to use print somewhat or consistently as part of workplace communications. To remain effective, any communication method must deliver messages that people want in a way that's relevant and useful to them.

Printed content will continue to play a strategically important role in communication. Print gives you a less competitive and crowded medium with all the benefits of a physical impact.

8. Simple beats complex. Small beats big. Easy beats hard.

Some of the most effective health, wellness, and benefits communication plans were created by organizations that were brave enough to think small. Rome wasn't created in a day, and improved health and a better understanding of benefit options won't happen overnight either. Well-crafted messages can spur employees to action, but change is more realistic when it's less idealistic - when it encourages minor changes rather than massive overhauls.

Consider a common health communication challenge: On one end of the fitness spectrum, you're speaking to the gold standards of good health - passionate folks who exercise five times a week. On the other end of the spectrum, you're trying to reach folks who don't even consider the need to exercise.

Many health communication plans focus on getting people in the latter group to join the zealots. That's ambitious and unrealistic. Smart communication aims to move unhealthy people an inch forward on the spectrum, not push them to lose mega-inches from their waistlines.

"People don't have to spend hours in the gym," says Gordon Blackburn, PhD, program director of Cardiac Rehabilitation in the Preventive Cardiology Department of the Cleveland Clinic. "Walking the dog, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and even vacuuming briskly burns calories and can improve your cardiovascular health."

While some changes - quitting smoking, for example - are foundations of healthful living, simple lifestyle improvements such as moderate walking and switching to fat-free milk can lower weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol, Blackburn points out. Effective employee communication eases instead of urges. Move in baby steps - one thing at a time.

Shawn M. Connors is president of Hope Health. He believes behavior change requires a mix of both art and science. He founded the International Health Awareness Center, Inc. (IHAC) in 1981, which focuses on the importance of communication in positively affecting workplace cultures.

Recently, he worked with a talented team to develop a workable, realistic health communication system, empowering thousands of workplaces and community-based clients to communicate more effectively with new media. Shawn has earned the respect of marketing professionals and health educators alike.

About Hope Health and Its New eBook

Hope Health, based in Kalamazoo, Mich., is an experienced, multimedia content provider offering new perspectives in wellness and benefit communications to workplaces and community organizations.It just released a free eBook, "New Perspectives in Wellness & Benefits Communications."

Companies are correctly sensing that communication can be the driver to employee satisfaction with benefits, and the critical element in improving enrollment and engagement in wellness programs. They're seeking ways to get employees to read important information, and this eBook can serve as their guide.

For 30 years, Hope Health has served workplaces, health plans and communities - more than 3,000 clients in all 50 states. The company's employees combine their expertise in health, marketing, wellness, benefits, technical writing and design to create a powerful employee communication engine.

The company's passion is to understand, motivate, and guide clients to deliver effective health, wellness, and benefits communication. Hope Health is the publisher of the award-winning HOPE Health Letter, which uses a special blend of humor, quick-to-read articles, and a friendly me-to-you tone to get across the message of healthy living.

Each subscribing company also can choose from low-cost, high-impact personalization options to showcase their organization's specific branding and news. In addition, Hope Health publishes the popular new eMazine electronic health newsletter hat is transforming the way companies and communities deliver health and wellness messages to employees and members.

Check out this sample to see how it works. It's entertaining, humorous, and interactive, giving readers medically reviewed, evidence-based health information that's interesting, inspiring and visual. Sign up for Hope Health's free Trendsetters Monthly Brief, a quick-to-read brief for wellness committees filled with cutting-edge communication trends, strategies, and tactics to maximize employee engagement - delivered to your email.

Hope Health's Website at includes many free tools, reports and articles you can download and use. If you would like help in developing and implementing your wellness or benefits communications strategy, call (800) 334-4094 or email Shawn M. Connors.

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