Do Wellness/Well-Being Programs Work or Do Not Work?

As we state in Shared Values-Shared Results: Positive Organizational Health as a Win-Win Philosophy health is a “wicked problem.” Thus health, including wellness and well-being, isn’t always attainable through any single-focused program or an array of single focused programs.  Clearly, health, wellness, and well-being are concepts subject to differing environmental, biological, social-psychological, and cultural context. With the understanding that wellness and well-being are concepts, the focus of this blog is on the success or lack of success of wellness/well-being programs.

The fuzzy use of saying a program or initiative “works” or “does not work” raises an immediate objection.  Every wellness/ well-being practitioner to whom we have spoken tells us of specific individuals or populations who experience programs that work or do not work.  This has been a lesson-learned over the last 40 years of this profession. Results are specific to individuals engaged in specific wellness/well-being programming within a specific context.  We believe programs need to be customized to organizations and further customized to individuals within those organizations.  This realization greatly impacts program design and implementation.

The traditional approach in bringing health/wellness/well-being to the forefront of an organization’s strategy is to focus on individuals.  Thus the success depends upon finding the right program and the correct measure (outcome) to evaluate the success for that individual. However, if success for the individual is defined by pre-determined outcome measures the results will predictably be mixed between what works and what does not work.  Some programs or outcome measures will work for some individuals, while other combinations of programs and outcome measures will not work.  Overall success for individuals can only be measured by the effectiveness of the program in facilitating individuals to meet their respective objectives.

In contrast the typical way of measuring the success of an organization in achieving a pre-determined outcome is many times more complex and difficult.  For example, we all know that healthcare costs as a leading indicator are too complex (wicked problem), given the many determinants of health and of healthcare costs. As a lagging indicator (three to five years or more and with additional multidimensional improvements) healthcare cost stabilization is a reasonable objective. (See Zero Trends).

Finally, we believe qualitative data of individual and organizational experiences will allow additional information and unexpected outcomes to be measured in addition to the expected and pre-defined outcomes of specific programs.  More in-depth analysis may be needed to test the effectiveness of the individual programs or policies.  And remember it is just as important to clarify and share what does not work as it is to clarify and share what works under the specific design and context of your program.

Recommendations. Individuals and organizations need to be specific as to their definition of wellness/well-being programs related to context AND to be specific in defining the measures of success in order to determine what works and what does not work.  This means all leaders, including wellness and well-being leaders will need to invest in intense planning in shared values and results, incorporate the voice of all employees, and institute a continuous flow of communications which begin in the early stages of delivering health initiatives and programs.  This degree of preparation is necessary throughout both large and small organizations in order to establish the path towards success and sustainability.

Postscript. During my nearly 40 years in this field we have evolved through many phases and nearly all have been positive for the overall field. The future will demand we continue the evolution as we take wellness to a much higher level in organizations.  I have always been thrilled to meet the many positive and enthusiastic practitioners who every day deliver their experiences to employees and organizations. We are truly a helping profession with a very positive message. We have a terrific tailwind and the demand for workplace wellness is increasing in the United States and worldwide.  We celebrate being a necessary part of the solution for optimal human health.  I am happy to celebrate this during the 2016 Thanksgiving season.