Fail-Safe Wellness

Despite the best of intentions, many wellness programs often fall short of their goal of improving the health and well-being of employees. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

At the upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, Ryan Picarella, president of the Wellness Council of America, will share a framework for building a strong organizational culture that improves employee health and, in turn, raises worker productivity.

Picarella, who will present a mega-session titled “Why Most Wellness ‘Programs’ Are Destined to Fail … and What You Can Do to Ensure Your Employees Thrive” on April 5, says most wellness strategies fail because employers haven’t fully thought through what works best for a given workforce.

HRE Editor David Shadovitz recently interviewed Picarella about themes he’ll touch on in his talk. Below are highlights from their conversation.

Thanks for taking the time to speak, Ryan. Let’s start by looking back over the last decade. How has worksite wellness evolved over that period?

I think it’s evolved in a couple different ways. Worksite wellness has been gaining a lot more attention over the last decade. It was fairly unheard of 10 or 15 years ago. But according to the latest stat I read, about 80 percent of employers that have a thousand or more employees are offering some type of wellness program.

In its infancy, [wellness] was really focused on more of the physical dimensions of health. It was about helping people [in this regard], whether it be losing weight or stopping smoking … or moving more. Now, wellness is being looked at in more of a holistic way.

So, in the minds of employers, would you say that it’s grown in importance?

Yes, absolutely. I think employers are now looking at creating healthy cultures. It’s really more of a way of recruiting people, especially younger workers … who are looking for jobs that support them. More than just a way to reduce healthcare costs, organizations are now looking to wellness as a way to [attract and retain] top talent and become an employer of choice.

I know that you’ve suggested in the past that worksite wellness took a wrong turn. Can you explain what you’re referring to, and what needs to occur to get it back on track?

I think we started to take a wrong turn when we began looking at worksite wellness as purely a medical-cost-reduction strategy. We look to wellness as a way to improve cholesterol, or a way to improve hypertension or diabetes and pre-diabetes. We really lost sight of the reason why people are struggling with health issues.

It really began to focus on population-health management, not on how to create organizational cultures that improve health and well-being. I think everybody agrees that we want to wake up and have more energy. We want to feel better. We want to live a healthy, vibrant life. But there are things in our lives, and certainly within organizations, that prevent us from achieving our health and wellness goals.

So to get back on track, we need to acknowledge … that healthy, happy employees are, by far, a much better option than employees who are sick. They’re going to be more productive. They’re going to more creative. They’re going to be more innovative. As a field, I think we need to start to think differently about what metrics really matter and what … we should be measuring.

I’m not going to say that medical cost isn’t an important issue. It clearly is. Costs have been rising and people are getting sicker. There’s no question about that. But there’s also [an immediate] ROI that can be very important to an organization. If people show up to work and feel good, have been eating well and moving more, they’re going to be a much better employee that very day.

Obviously, HR and benefit leaders need to be able to make the business case to C-suite leaders for investing in wellness. How do they go about doing that?

It’s a great question, one that I think a lot of our members seem to struggle with. I think the first thing HR and benefit leaders need to do is better understand the goals of that senior executive. From there, they can then connect the dots as to how the health and wellness of the employees can impact that particular goal.

Let me give you an example. I was talking to a business leader recently as to how to build a business case for wellness in the organization. I said, “What’s particularly important to you?” And his answer was, “Problem solving, innovation and creativity. We need more of these people in our organization.”

Stress, right now, is a major issue affecting workforces across the globe. This was backed up by a recent Willis Towers Watson study. When you have high amounts of stress in your body, you have high amounts of cortisol–and when you have a lot of cortisol within your body, the hippocampus shuts down and you’re not nearly as creative or innovative, not to mention the health ailments that come with increased amounts of cortisol. If you can help people reduce cortisol, they immediately become better problem solvers, better thinkers and are much more innovative.

Do you have any thoughts on ways HR and benefits leaders can move the needle in terms of leader and manager involvement?

There are different definitions as to what involvement means. What are we expecting leaders to do? Show up at every marathon that we run? I think leaders need to be open and honest about their journey and be as supportive as possible. Leadership is central to what we do here at WELCOA. The first of our seven benchmarks–which we’re in the midst of changing–used to be CEO support. Now, we’re talking about committed and aligned leadership.

We know that the most impactful person in your organization, when it comes to your individual health and wellnesss, is your direct boss. It’s not necessarily the CEO, though the CEO can certainly set the tone, vision, norms [and] traditions.

If you have a tough relationship with your boss, your Sunday nights will be pretty anxious. You might not sleep well and show up Monday with a lot of anxiety. That’s ultimately going to lead to your health declining.

So I think what leaders need to do is be people who can support their employees in their goals. I don’t think leaders need to be out there running marathons. Everyone is on their own journey. As organizations, I think we need to acknowledge that.

Earlier, you mentioned taking a holistic approach to well-being. I assume part of that involves mental well-being, right? If so, are you seeing organizations begin to address this in a meaningful way?

Yes, I think mental health is definitely gaining a lot of attention, and for good reason. Stress is a huge issue and often leads to mental-health issues and, ultimately, poor health behaviors. It leads to not eating well, not sleeping very well, not moving as much. For too long, employers have been afraid to talk about mental health, to their detriment.

As you know, a lot of companies have employee-assistance programs; they’ll check that box and say that’s enough to solve the problem. But it’s clearly not. Especially in today’s working environment, the lines between work stress and home stress … are very blurred. Now that we’re so connected with technology, we bring whatever baggage we have at home into the office, and we bring whatever baggage we have at the office into our home.

Helping people deal with what might be going on [in their lives] needs to be an important strategy for any health and wellness initiative. I had the opportunity to be in New Zealand last year, and one of the issues that employers there are trying to tackle involves domestic abuse. If employees are going home to deal with a domestic-abuse situation, they’re going to come to work and not be productive. They might be there physically, but not emotionally or mentally.

I think companies really need to start thinking about how to make sure they have the right policies in place–and employees have the right support and resources, or other means, to get the help that they need.

Obviously, financial debt is a major contributor to employee stress, right? What’s the role of employers when it comes to helping employees on this front?

I mentioned that stress is a huge issue affecting today’s workforce–and the No. 1 contributing factor to that stress is financial worries. So I think helping employees deal with financial burdens and stress is extremely important. The top reason for bankruptcy today is dealing with the overwhelming cost of a medical emergency. That can break a family pretty quick. Not to mention, students who are coming out of education these days have an average debt of $40,000 to $50,000.

Technology is increasingly playing a much more instrumental role as far as health and well-being lately. There certainly has been no shortage of stories written on trackable devices and mobile technology. Where do you see innovation happening?

On one end, we’re saying people are too connected digitally and we need to create greater balance in their lives. There’s a new field that talks about digital toxicity and how we help people create some separation between themselves and their phones. On the other end, the solution to that seems to be a new piece of technology we’re asking people to use.

That said, I think technology can be a great tool, as long as we’re helping people use it and not expecting them to spend their lives on their phones and on computers to help manage their lives. The technology and the tools that have been the most powerful are the ones that can connect people in more of a social way.

Are you seeing technology play a role when it comes to involving remote workers in well-being initiatives?

Absolutely. We have people here at WELCOA who, prior to joining the team, were working remotely and didn’t feel like a part of what was going on. They wanted to be around people again. Technology such as video conferencing can be especially effective in getting them to feel they’re part of whatever journey the home office might be on.

So if there is any kind of corporate challenge that’s happening–or any other types of events–[involve] remote workers. Make them feel like they’re part of the team. When you have people who are working out of home offices, sometimes there’s a disconnect between the work that they’re doing and how that contributes to the success–or lack thereof–of the organization.

Those who are working remotely still need to have access to the same resources as those at corporate. So if the home office has a fitness center, maybe it’s finding similar resources in the communities where remote workers live and work.

What trends are likely to reshape the well-being landscape going forward?

I was just reading yesterday that we’re starting to see a decline in incentives. In recent times, we have been heavily reliant on extrinsic motivators and penalties. We’re going to give you this money if you do this; we’re going to give you this money if you achieve this; and we might even penalize you if you don’t do this. I think we’re certainly trending away from those approaches and starting to really tap into people’s intrinsic desires to be well.

Going forward, I think the focus is going to be much more on culture. That’s been a word that I think a lot of people–including leaders–haven’t been able to wrap their heads around. They’re wondering: What does culture mean? What’s the return on it? How do you accurately measure it? How do you improve it?

I think that, over the next 10 years, we’re going to get much better at understanding the main dimensions of culture and how they can be improved. Just as importantly, how can that improve organizational performance?

I think we’re going to start to see wellness as more of a talent strategy. How do we [use it to] bring in employees? How do we use it to showcase our organization as a top employer?

The other big trend is the built environment. How do we really optimize the places where we work to improve health and well-being just by virtue of being in them?


HRE’s 2018 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference will be held April 4 through 6 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. For more details, visit

David Shadovitz
David Shadovitz is editor emeritus and former editor and co-publisher for HRE.