One of the lessons I frequently relearn in life is that people do not want unsolicited advice. An example that most parents can relate to is that my 6-year-old daughter does not want my help tying her shoes, even when we’re running late. Similarly, most employees — and certainly their dependents — do not believe they need to change how they manage their health.
This is why Penn State’s moderately structured, but poorly executed, wellness program failed so disastrously. The recent New York Times article about the program reports that “[a]fter weeks of vociferous objections by faculty members” University President Rodney A. Erickson—not the human resources leadership—announced it was abandoning the $1,200 annual surcharge levied against employees who refused to meet certain requirements. Those requirements included filling out a health risk assessment (HRA), participating in a biometric screening, and getting a medical check-up.
Human resources professionals’ fear of this type of outcome prevents many potentially meaningful and engaging wellness programs from even being introduced. To overcome this inherent resistance to wellness, broad employee understanding and support of the program is a prerequisite. The administrators at Penn State failed to attain this goal. Wellness — like any major change — cannot solely be a top-down effort, launched with a letter from the president, especially at consensus-driven academic institutions.
At Penn State, the outcome could have been successful if leaders had built a consensus prior to launching that wellness programs can save lives, reduce costs and improve performance. This is not the type of organization where decisions can be defended by saying: “This program is the one recommended by our health insurer.”
Building consensus for better outcomes
Through consensus-building, Miami University in Ohio successfully launched its voluntary health risk assessment, biometric screening and doctor visit program in 2010 and transitioned to a premium discount program in 2011. Premium discounts started at $15 per month and increased to $45 per month in 2013. More than 85 percent of the covered faculty and dependents participate in the program, and age-specific preventive screenings have increased substantially. The top three factors contributing to Miami University’s success are communication, consistency, and C-suite and departmental manager support.