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Putting the "Person" Back in Personalization: A Wellness Program Strategy Guide

What’s the difference between a 63-year-old employee worried about retirement savings and a 22-year-old employee suffering from depression?

Nothing. Not according to many wellness programs, anyway.

And that spells trouble for employers.

When employees are unhappy at work, they don’t engage. Absenteeism can increase by nearly 40%, and health expenses can escalate by 50%.

However, simply throwing generic health and wellness programs at their feet won’t solve the problem.

Psychological research from the Center for Self-Determination Theory tells us that when employees can make their own health care choices, they tend to be more motivated to do something about their wellness needs. As a result, when their choices are validated and supported, they experience more job satisfaction.

When it comes to designing effective wellness programs, personalization has become table stakes. To ensure their wellness offerings are tailored to meet the needs of each employee, companies need to abandon the broad-brush approach to wellness programming and focus on human-centric models with options that get to the heart of individual needs.

By doing so, organizations will likely see more of a return on their wellness program investment, as well as improve their employee recruitment and retention efforts.

How Personalization Translates to Wellness Program Success

Historically speaking, companies have often shied away from the idea of personalizing their wellness programs, assuming that it involves much more work and expense than it’s worth. As it turns out, though, personalizing your wellness program brings enormous benefits, both in the short- and long-term.

Benefits of a Personalized Approach

When companies personalize their wellness programming, their employees tend to be:

  • More motivated to seek the health care they need
  • More knowledgeable about their options and which choices are most appropriate for their needs
  • More engaged in specific activities, programs, and services that address individual needs

Personalization also translates to better outcomes for employees and lower overall health care costs for employers. When your employees are empowered to be their own health care advocates and have access to programs that are relevant for them, they may not need acute or ambulatory health care services as often.

Case Study: Putting Personalized Wellness into Practice

When a nationally-known children's hospital decided to create a best-in-class wellness program for its employees, its directors began by examining what would benefit both the hospital and its employees. What exactly did their employees need? What would benefit them, and what would ultimately benefit the hospital?

From there, they determined that addressing employee health was the first order of business. (Not surprising, when you consider that most health care professions neglect their own health, especially in the last several years.)

The hospital’s wellness program went on to offer biometric screenings to determine a baseline and measure levels of health care needs. Knowing that they had a wide range of employee workloads and shifts, the program coordinators leveraged outreach, intervention, and online resources to engage all employees—fitting the program around employees’ lives so they could easily participate.

Ongoing coaching, monthly newsletters, and six-month check-ups kept well-being top of mind for employees. It also helped that the program offered financial rewards and incentives for meeting specific wellness goals.

The results were downright amazing.

Participation rates skyrocketed after the program was put in place—92% of employees, including executives, took part in the program. Spouses were included as well, with 60% participation.

Even more incredible was the discovery that 399 of the participants’ biometric screening results resulted in those employees receiving immediate medical attention.

The program didn’t just improve health—it saved lives.

3 Questions to Ask When Personalizing Your Wellness Program

The first thing to keep in mind when we talk about personalization is the “person” in “personalization.” Your wellness program should cater to what the employees in your company truly want and need. As much as you may be inspired by one company’s wellness initiatives, you may not be able to adapt those practices to the employees in your organization.

Organizations need to go to the source to understand what programs are going to effectively engage employees. By asking the following questions, organizations can shape their programs around their employee populations.

1  “What do my employees want and need?”

Your employees have the most expertise and knowledge about their own needs. Of course, they may be surprised by what a biometric screening reveals about their physical health, but they’re the experts on what they need from a well-being perspective.

The best way to fill gaps in care is by surveying employees and asking them about their biggest concerns. Then, aggregate that data and align your wellness program goals with each employee’s goals. Make certain there are choices available for every employee to address one or more of their wellness needs.

Speaking of choice, you may also want to consider creating challenges and activities that offer the depth and breadth to choose how and when to accomplish goals.

For example, instead of creating a challenge that involves running a 10k this month, design the challenge so that employees can run, walk, or bike any distance of their choosing. Or, offer the chance to complete 10 hours of yoga in a month or to swim 100 laps. Include as much room for personalization as possible, so each employee can find an activity that works with their lifestyle and body.

2  “How can I foster a culture of empathy?”

Another way to gather data about what your employees want and need is to check with their managers. They interact with their teams on a daily basis, and they may be able to identify any relevant resources that could help individuals on a case-by-case basis.

There is one caveat to this, however; your managers need to actually know what’s happening within their teams. Not to mention, this method relies on managers being engaged themselves. A recent Gallup study found that as few as 35% of managers are engaged in their own jobs, but they have the potential to increase employee engagement by nearly 60% when they are engaged.

What is one of the most effective ways to learn about employees (and their managers) and increase engagement? Empathy.

If your company isn’t already working to create a culture of empathy, this is your sign that it’s time to do so. Not only will it open lines of communication between employees and their managers, but it also contributes to the overall health and wellness of your workforce.

When people feel respected, understood, and heard, they are much more likely to share their wellness goals and challenges with others. This can inform which wellness services and programs are needed for individuals across your organization.

Once you have a solid understanding of what’s needed from your wellness program to deliver personalized services, you can look at ways to keep employees focused and committed to the goals they establish for themselves.

3  “In what ways can I keep employees accountable?”

In the case study referenced above, one tactic that contributed to program success was the use of differentiated communication and accountability structures.

If the last few years have exposed anything, it’s the massive number of responsibilities that employees juggle daily. Despite their best efforts, your employees (especially those who are primary caregivers) often can’t help but lose focus on their own wellness needs.

This is a perfect opportunity to leverage personalization in your program communications by letting your employees choose how they want to hold themselves accountable. It makes sense to establish expectations that employees should set goals and identify the motivators, obstacles, and resources that will help or hinder progress—but the avenue employees choose should be left to them.

A great way to help and offer a range of choices is through health coaching. But again, look beyond a one-size-fits-all health coaching service. Here are some options that open up options for customization:

  • Wellness Coaching with qualified coaches who work one-on-one and in-person with clients to achieve their wellness goals, whether they involve fitness, nutrition, or overall health.
  • Digital Mental Health Counseling with independently licensed clinicians to get to the root of underlying emotional issues that impede overall wellness. At WellRight, our clients offer their employees an SMS-based service that allows participants to text their clinicians at any time using their mobile devices.
  • Self-Directed CBT, which is another digital behavioral health offering designed to meet users where they are. Our Animo cognitive behavioral therapy platform allows employees to access mental health resources that are most practical to them. It’s also an ideal alternative to therapy for employees who cannot participate in traditional CBT for any reason.
  • Peer-to-Peer Coaching, which is a less formal type of accountability but can still be very effective. People tend to be healthier and live longer with strong social networks, so creating a “well-being buddy system” can be exactly what employees need to stay motivated and focused.

Elements of Personalization to Consider

Type of Work

The type of work employees perform can determine their access to health and wellness resources. For example, a person working a third shift would have to sacrifice family or much-needed sleep to get in a workout, so resources and offerings around that aspect of wellness may not be practical.

Your wellness program has to recognize shifts, working hours, inherent stress levels with certain responsibilities, and even social determinants of health that limit an employee’s access to the resources they need.

Now that employees are working in remote or hybrid environments, they may not be located near a fitness center or a grocery store with healthy options. Helping each employee determine the best and most realistic path to their goals is critical to creating a successful program.

Generational Differences

Another big consideration is how disparate generational wellness priorities have become. Today’s workforce includes employees spanning four generations, and they definitely do not have the same health goals or motivators.

For instance, as the current “sandwich generation,” Generation X is dealing with aging parents, their own weight struggles, and according to a recent study, increased reliance on alcohol and cigarettes. On the other side of the coin, wellness concerns are quite different for younger generations; in Deloitte’s Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial survey, researchers found that financial wellness is the No. 1 concern for Gen Z and millennials.

Unsurprisingly, mental health is ranked among the top five most important priorities for Gen Z employees, with a majority also wanting health insurance and mental health benefits from their employers. Similarly, millennials rank preventive care and compensation as some of their most important priorities at work, while both generations equally prefer flexible hybrid or remote work options. Another interesting priority to consider when it comes to younger employees is how well your company aligns with their personal values, including environmental conservation, social justice, and workplace inclusivity.

Personalization and a human-centric wellness program design are the keys to meeting your employees where they are—which, in turn, can have a positive impact on recruitment and retention.

For more information on how to create a personalized wellness program for your employees, contact one of our Well-Being Strategy Consultants. At WellRight, we’re here to help.


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