Healthcare is on everyone’s mind nowadays, from individuals to the government. Employers often try to lower healthcare expenses by sponsoring wellness programs. How effective are these programs? Not much, according to a report by the National Institute for Health Care Reform:

While employer wellness programs have spread rapidly in recent years, few employers implement programs likely to make a meaningful difference in employees’ health—customized, integrated, comprehensive, diversified programs strongly linked to a firm’s business strategy and strongly championed by senior leadership and managers throughout the company.

A successful program involves many factors, the majority of which (not surprisingly) overlap with those of other corporate change initiatives, such as quality and continuous improvement. For example, just take a look at the key takeaways from this report:

  • Customization. “Programs need to be customized to suit the culture and situation of a particular employer. One-size-fits-all programs … are unlikely to make a significant impact either in participation or outcomes.”Sound familiar? How many Lean Six Sigma initiatives started with a cultural and strategic assessment to understand the readiness and fit in the company?
  • Clear Intent with Executive Sponsorship. “Clarity from senior leadership in linking wellness to the organization’s business strategy is important: … selling wellness to employees as initiatives for their sole benefit, or selling wellness in an environment of discord or financial turmoil, are likely to be futile. “Does every employee understand “Why” they need to participate in wellness, Lean or Six Sigma for themselves and for the company as a whole? What does it take to make it real and meaningful to a rational and intelligent person?
  • Communication. “In addition to strong messaging from senior leadership, successful programs tend to have both dedicated wellness staff and informal champions within the company … to keep the message fresh and keep employees engaged. “Employees have their daily jobs, family and life priorities. Unless they are supported and feel the compelling reason constantly, they will not change their priorities and thus behaviors. Employee engagement is the job of senior leaders, and it requires dedicated resources.
  • Integration. “Programs that are comprehensive, integrated and diversified stand the best chance of success: Behavior modification programs offered in isolation don’t have a strong track record. “To generate results, a new program must support the business and people.It’s not uncommon to see new Lean and Six Sigma projectscreated for the purpose of training or certification, not linked to an employee’s job or aligned to business objectives. As a result, as soon as the project is done, trained belts go right back to where they were and how they worked.  No real improvement and no behavioral change.
  • Right Incentives. “[I]ncentives should be designed to incrementally reward discrete activities that improve or maintain health. … Employers with successful programs emphasized the importance of non-financial incentives, such as corporate and peer recognition for wellness achievements.” Having the right incentives is critical. People behave the way they are being measured and rewarded. Many of the best Lean Six Sigma professionals I know embrace the methodologies simply because it’s the right thing to do and they are passionate about it. Financial rewards tied to improvement may result in “firefighting” behavior, similar to weight loss:

“The same people win every year. They lose weight. They get paid for it. They gain weight back. They lose it again. They get paid again.” Indeed, experts noted that a program that pays for improvement but does not genuinely engage employees, runs the risk of incentivizing counterproductive behavior, such as gaining weight before the start of a weight-loss competition, to make improvement and rewards easier to achieve.

  • Right Measures. “Employers should expect to invest in wellness for several years before achieving a positive ROI, if at all. Employers looking to wellness as a quick fix for high health costs are those least likely to see positive returns, as they are also the least likely to have undertaken the measures to gain true employee engagement in health.” It’s disheartening to see how many companies initiate Lean Six Sigma (or other business improvement) programs for short-term financial goals and measure its success accordingly. They inevitably fail and conclude that the methodology didn’t work.

Any change in the fundamental health of an individual or a corporation requires long-term commitment and investment in people. What senior management needs to succeed in change is not another shortcut or quick fix. It is simple — Leadership.

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