Low Participation in Your Wellness Program? Just Ask Your Employees Why!

By Thomas Ward – Wellness Program Manager, UMass Memorial Health Care, Inc.

You’ve worked with your stakeholders and have set up your strategy, created programs and services that you just know will work – it’s now “go day” and the only employees who show up are the woman who runs every day after work and the guy who’s always checking out his biceps in the mirror…..

Sound like a nightmare? It just might be your program’s reality. Best practices, industry norms and benchmarking all help to set a foundation and a general direction, however, what drives participation is understanding what the customers of the process want. Remember the “Platinum Rule” – treat others the way they want to be treated – in other words: deliver programs/services that achieve your goals but that your customers want to participate in.

So how do you do it?

  • Use what information you already have:
    • There are many data sources available to organizations to help understand their employee population and often it becomes “dark data” that no one looks at or takes the time to see its value
    • Look for trends, but take the time to understand data points that might be considered “outliers” as these may provide great insight
  • Develop and implement a needs assessment or other similar survey tool
    • Make it available in as many formats as you can and always be sure to check and see if it should be translated into other languages for your employees
    • Distribute it during lunchtimes and before/after shifts as these can be good times to capture your employees on the fly
    • Be sure to have an anonymous way for respondents to complete the survey – SurveyMonkey and FormStack are great tools for doing this
  • Get a bunch of informal leaders or influencers together to obtain their views via focus groups
    • Ask open ended questions, but provide guidance on any restrictions/barriers to encourage innovative solutions (e.g. barriers to access, environmental support, etc.)
    • Use skilled facilitators to manage the group if possible, otherwise, it will be easy for dominating personalities to take over and for you to miss input from quieter participants
  • Go to the Gemba (this is my favorite!): get out of your office and go to “the real place” or where your employees do their work
    • Once you’ve gotten to the front lines, ask questions and take the time to listen!
    • Don’t be afraid of dissention – listen mindfully, try to understand their perspective (chances are that it is vastly different than your own as someone who “grew up” in wellness) and look to find common ground
    • Reframe your mindset that there are no bad ideas – take the time to understand what the person is trying to say or how they are problem solving, then ask open ended questions to help them to develop their initial thought

Regardless of what feedback you receive, remember that the goal is to improve the program/service/process to add value to your participants vs. providing a personal critique of the people delivering the program/service/process.  Just because someone doesn’t like a program you took hours to put together or that they may not agree with how it should be implemented; their opinion doesn’t mean they are attacking you as a person.

Also, be forthcoming on what you can execute on-don’t over promise and under deliver.  Keep communication open, establish timelines for updating the individual/group on progress toward implementing their idea and tell them of any modifications that have had to be made to it.

Finally, when you get feedback and it leads to a successful program, give credit where credit is due.  Be sure to tie it back to the feedback you received (good, bad or otherwise) and, if possible, obtain permission from the individual(s) to call out their contribution to improving the process.

Your employees are willing to help you implement your initiative and make it successful, you just need to ask their opinion.