Panel: Andy Crighton, MD, Prudential; Kerry Mitchell, PhD, Moxy Solutions; and Pauline Dow, EdD, Independent San Antonio School System. 

On February 23-24, HERO members gathered in San Antonio, Texas for our Winter Think Tank on the topic of “The Employee Experience.” We opened this session of our Think Tank discussions with what we anticipated would be a slow pitch question: “The voice of the employee is well represented by wellness committees: Yes, no, or it depends?” Surely “it depends” would have been the easy way to warm up to this think tank topic so it was striking that the clear majority of our Think Tank members swung hard at the pitch with a resounding “no.” Too often our wellness committees attract wellness enthusiasts and too seldom are the voices of the disaffected on deck when employee engagement ideas are supposed to be batted around. We discussed the challenge of reaching the hardest to reach with Pauline Dow, the chief of academic affairs, Andy Crighton, a chief medical officer, and Kerry Mitchell, a consultant and researcher who recently completed a study on the needs and values of millennials. As much as these experts felt many of the values and preferences that influence the employee experience are universal, such as supervisory support and meaningful work, they were equally persuasive about the need to tailor the employee experience at the individual level.

The oft cited ‘unique needs’ of millennials proved an interesting case in point. Assuming one size fits all in any demographic category is dicey. But surely the millennials are our freshly minted meaning seekers and are the key to an emergent, voraciously tech savvy workforce. Right? Not so fast, according to Mitchell. She reminded us that the millennials are usually defined as those born between 1980 and 2000 and her take is that the values and preferences of those on the front and tail ends of this timespan can be quite different. What’s more, most of the research on their needs and wants is derived from studies of knowledge workers. As with other generations, the skills of those with affluent backgrounds who had computers and smart phones from the get-go should not be lumped in with the capabilities of lower educated workers. According to Mitchell, it’s safe to assume millennials are great at texting but that doesn’t mean we can conclude that they’re all tech wizards. [recording]

So, what’s the program?

How then do we adapt or customize wellness programs to stay relevant to millennials, responsive to the needs of low wage earners and appealing to the disaffected? Or, name your hard-to-reach demographic and their engagement shortcomings: is there an App for that? Not quite, per this panel. Instead, we should start by rejecting the premise that improving health starts with a program. Indeed, for Crighton, the idea that programs can produce health, much less a return on investment, is antithetical to how he organizes his health and well-being approach at Prudential. Wellness emanates from well trained and supportive supervisors and grows in relation to investments in supervisory training and a healthy workplace culture. This philosophy is captured, in part, in two items that have been added to Prudential’s employee engagement surveys:

1. My organization supports my health and well-being.
2. My supervisor supports my health and well-being.

The bottom line, according to Crighton, is that good bosses beat good programs when it comes to advancing employee well-being. “We want people to bring their whole self to work and feel accepted,” says Crighton. Accordingly, Prudential sponsors town hall style meetings that create a safe place for discussing touchy issues like bullying or substance abuse. Concerns about stress, depression, and anxiety are addressed as often by how we organize the work as by the detection and referral systems associated with programs. Ultimately, job one is providing employee feedback and support and creating an open and honest workplace.

Is loyalty dead?

That’s the question one Think Tank member came away pondering after the first roundtable discussions. The more we considered the challenges related to creating unique and stimulating and welcoming environments to attract and retain “gig economy” workers who are looking for the right fit, the more this member wondered about the balance of power between employees and employers. Alluding to controversies surrounding charter schools and standardized testing, Pauline Dow offered cogent parallels between the voice of teachers and the needs and wants of the communities they serve. Increasingly communities have expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcomes produced in public schools by shifting public dollars to support private schools. Such policy shifts can create chasms of opportunity for students based on geography or ability to pay. Similarly, where standardized tests are meant to create a rising tide that raises all boats, too often such tests primarily advantage certain students with predictable backgrounds and learning styles.

According to Dow, teachers simply haven’t been heard when such policies are enacted and teachers feel discounted, if not betrayed, when resources are shifted based on the latest test results. Is it a fair comparison to suggest that the evolution of health and well-being programs has been driven more by a business case and the changing whims of organizations than by the voice of the employees? If health risk assessments have been the standardized tests from which programs are judged, how often are employees consulted on the metrics that matter most to them and asked about why better results aren’t yet forthcoming? And when the charter for wellness moves from lifestyle to culture or from engagement to employee experience, how clearly have employee voices been heard with respect to how wellness related resources are reallocated?

New wine in a new bottle.

The movement from ‘wellness to well-being’ has sometimes presented as old wine in a new bottle. In contrast, the differences examined during this think tank between a wellness program aimed at maximizing an employee experience compared to a wellness program aimed at increasing engagement seemed more differentiated and compelling. During member report outs Roshanthi Fisher, a wellness consultant at Lockton Industries, described how persuaded she was by panelists who said that a company’s customer experience was highly dependent on that organization’s employee experience. “When we describe our work in health and well-being we focus on operational success and outcomes. Instead, can we ask how employees with a high level of engagement and who are satisfied working for your organization are affecting your business? How is their employee experience influencing how a customer thinks about purchasing services?”

To what extent should our use of the term well-being be associated with the employee experience rather than with a program? For Steven Noeldner, a senior consultant at Mercer, “the word experience resonates.” Says Noeldner: “I get to work with a lot of different organizations where the employee experience is not extraordinary when it comes to wellness program. We need to better ensure there is an exceptional experience from the very first exposure.” This need is most acute for the hard to reach according to Noeldner: “It’s the same crowd that always shows up for wellness and that may be ok, but are we really addressing root issues that a population is facing? Can many employees really think about well-being as an aspiration for themselves when they have so many other issues pressing on them? That is the opportunity. We’ll need to help organizations tap into principles of corporate social responsibility and redirect this inward.”

Accomplishing this broader, experience based charter will require that we lead employers in seeing the value of wellness beyond health care cost containment. “There is a great opportunity to reframe the conversation and use language that resonates more with the leaders we need buy-in from,” said Pari Luna, a director of health strategies at Hays Companies. “Is it possible to accomplish a positive employee experience while meeting the goals of the organization? It is a question that bears more discussion. How do we align organizational culture and employee values? Would we be better off investing in people training for managers as a way to achieve wellness? Should we focus less on programs and more on direct supervisor training and their role in building a culture of wellness in a more organic way?”

As with all HERO think tanks, such questions not only fostered new ideas, they offer the foundation for new research and continuing education. And, of course, these ideas are germinating the seeds from which future HERO think tanks will grow.

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