Motivating Behavior Change by Treating the Whole Person

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s event, Innovations in Workplace and Community Wellness: Bridging Personal and Population Health. The morning was filled with insightful perspectives from a range of business leaders, academics, medical professionals, and public health experts who all share the goal of reducing health care costs and promoting preventative measures to serve the sick and keep the healthy healthy. These aims are particularly central to employers, who lose billions of dollars each year in sick time and lost productivity due to the poor health of their employees.

Workplace wellness programs use a combination of benefits, services, and incentives to modify health risk factors and encourage healthy behavior, such as exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation. But there is an increasing recognition among employers that physical health is only one aspect of wellness; that well-being is about much more than freedom from disease. Innovative programs provide employees with tools to manage stress, access to mental health services, and help with financial planning.

For example, Kevin Crain, Managing Director of Institutional Retirement and Benefit Services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, talked about the rise of financial wellness programs (FWPs) that are rapidly becoming the “new normal.” He reported that 61% of employees are moderately or seriously stressed about their finances; while 83% of employers feel they are at least “somewhat responsible for the financial wellness of employees.” Such programs encourage employees to save and plan for the future, while providing support and guidance to ease money-related stress – and evidence shows that increasing the financial wellness of employees also increases their productivity. Beena Thomas, Vice President of Client Engagement at Optum, shared her company’s shift in focus from health to well-being, and discussed the critical importance of creating a “culture of health” where the environment, from the break room to the board room, supports a diversity of programs.

The great news for employers is that these types of multi-faceted programs are perfectly in line with the broader, more holistic vision of health and wellness embraced by their youngest employees in the research I presented, Healthcare Without Borders: How Millennials are Reshaping Health and Wellness. We found that notions of mental health, balance, and relaxation are much more important to this generation; as a result, they are more likely to consider unplugging from technology, meditation, massage, and talk therapy to be elements of staying well. The bad news is that employers may not realize the opportunities this mindset presents: for example, Mr. Crain reported that only 7% of FWPs target Millennials.

As Millennials come to represent the heart of the workforce over the next couple of decades, they will expect that employers support their quest for overall well-being – and that goes beyond workplace wellness initiatives. Nearly half of our sample reported that maintaining a work/life balance is part of overall health and wellness, ranking it more important than regular medical and dental exams or even having health insurance at all. From this perspective, telecommuting and flexible work arrangements look more like health benefits than progressive-workplace perks.

Brands and employers alike must recognize that, for Millennials, health care is not a separate sphere, financially, emotionally, or physically. Wellness for them is about all facets of life and, in particular, how they are connected – from maintaining balance to controlling stress to cultivating positive experiences and relationships. Perhaps it is this very orientation, combined with forward-thinking wellness programs, which will enable Millennials to truly stand out from earlier generations – by avoiding the chronic, preventable diseases that burden the healthcare system today.


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