Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Independence Hall

Changing the focus of wellness programs

by James Porter October 25, 2019

Changing the focus of wellness programs 

I have to admit, one of the highlights of the WELCOA conference in Philadelphia this year, was the trip I took to Independence Hall. George Washington sat in the big chair at the table in the front of the room and Thomas Jefferson sat in the chair at the table right in the center of the picture at the back of the room.



Just got back from the WELCOA Wellness Conference in Philadelphia last week and there was a lot of talk about engagement and creating a workplace where happy employees can thrive. One of the central themes of this conference was about moving away from the old wellness model or what Dr. Jon Robison calls the 4Ps of traditional wellness programs: Pry, poke, prod and punish. Wellness isn't going to be well-received in your organization when it focuses strictly on biometric screenings and/or punishing employees for unhealthy behaviors or simply not filling out and submitting an HRA.


Right now, Yale University is embroiled in a huge lawsuit being brought by 5400 Yale Employees over (you guessed it) their wellness program. The gist of that lawsuit is that employees feel they shouldn't be fined for NOT participating in the program. Check out this article on the SHRM website, if you want to learn more. Even the Journal of American Medicine recently published an article about how wellness programs don't work.


That's why the WELCOA conference is suggesting that wellness programs move in a new direction.


In my mind no one addressed this point better than Jim Purcell, formerly of Rhode Island Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the founder of the Returns on Wellbeing Institute. He says you have to change the culture from the top down. "No matter how good the program is it will fail in a toxic culture. The key to happiness in the workplace boils down to two simple elements. Having work that you love to do in a place where you love to do it."


Ryan Picarella, CEO of WELCOA told an inspiring story about his brother-in-law who is a pilot for Southwest Airlines. When his sister (the SW pilot's wife) was diagnosed with breast cancer, the decision was made was that The Mayo Clinic in Rochester was the place where she could get the best treatment. Not only did SW give the pilot as much time as he needed to care for her, they flew him to Rochester, they flew her there to get the treatment and sent her care packages as well.


I guess it's no surprise that when Herb Kelleher, the founder and former CEO of Southwest died in January Fortune Magazine wrote: "Herb Kelleher was one of the best CEO's in America."


The conference also stressed that rather than looking at the now debunked notion that for every dollar spent on wellness, $3 is saved on health care costs, the better thing to do is to look at the overall effect of energized, happy, healthy and engaged employees on the company's bottom line. Wellness programs that look at lowering stress, increasing engagement, and treating employees better seem to contribute to the company's success financially.


These stock market darlings (voted the best places to work) with great wellness programs are called "Firms of Endearment." Firms like Southwest and Starbucks where people actually enjoy going to work dramatically out-perform stock market growth indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average.


As Jim Purcell noted the reason wellness programs appear not to work is that their performance was judged on the wrong metrics (lowering healthcare costs). He said that the most important metric to look at is employee turnover which directly effects the company's bottom line.


He gave the example of a call center, where turnover was astronomically high. Having spoken myself at the annual convention of Call Center Managers (IRAE) I can tell you that stress is a major issue at call centers around the world. And that's the driving force around rates of turnover that in this country are typically higher than 50% annually. But at a call center Jim Purcell worked with, they were able to lower that turnover rate to less than 2% a year by creating 3 teams of operators. While teams A & B answered the phones Team C could take a break, go for a walk, meditate, etc. 


When you look at the cost of replacing a worker who quits (Remember the old adage: Workers don't quit their jobs; they quit their bosses) that cost, according to this panel of experts, is 150% of that workers annual salary. So it's pretty easy to make a case for how lowering turnover helps employers lower overall costs.


James Porter
James Porter