From #SHRM13 – Wellness Is Not Negotiable (Revisited)


 (Special thanks to Dr. Don Powell of the American Institute for Preventative Medicine for his generous permission to reproduce his pictures/slides.)

Last year I wrote a blog with a similar title about the death of Whitney Houston. In that blog, I argued that wellness was not just the absence of disease, but included the spiritual and emotional well-being of the individual. And I stated – and still believe – that our nation’s employers tend not to care about the mental and social health of their employees unless it somehow helps decrease benefit costs.

But wellness has been on my mind a lot recently, because a lot of my friends have been getting sick or dying – and it scares the shit out of me. Yes, I know I am middle-aged – with a very generous definition of what constitutes the “middle” – so a large proportion of my friends are between 40 and death, like me. But they shouldn’t be getting cancer. Or having heart attacks. Not yet.

But they are – and so are a boatload of other Americans. In fact, more than 4 times as many Americans die from heart disease or cancer – the two leading causes of death -than the 3rd leading cause of death.

This happens because many of us have this attitude that it won’t happen to us. Or we are too worried about the present to think about the future. So we do really stupid things that increase our risk. Things like

  •  Smoking
  • Overeating and/or eating an unhealthy diet
  • Failure to exercise or physical inactivity

Every one of those things increases risk of both cancer and heart disease. There are so many risks that the individual cannot control – things like environment and genetics – that it seems incredible that we would actually pile on more.

I’m not excluding myself, either.  I still struggle to eat properly.  I have to calendar my exercise sometimes, or I will just conveniently “forget” to do it. Or I try to negotiate with myself – telling myself I will do better tomorrow, or next week, or next month.

But when it comes to wellness, there is no negotiating. Either you do it right, or you risk dying much earlier than you should.

So what are businesses doing to promote wellness – mental, spiritual, and physical?

During my recent trip to the massive HR conference known as SHRM Annual (#SHRM13), I decided to see if the sellers of wellness programs – who are also the wellness-related speakers at conference learning sessions – actually bought into and promoted  the idea that (1) wellness includes more than the absence of disease and encompasses mental and spiritual well-being, and (2) American companies bear more responsibility to make wellness a priority for their employees.

To do this, I chose to attend a session called “The 20 Essential Characteristics of Successful Worksite Wellness Programs”.  I reasoned that both 1 and 2 above were pretty essential characteristics, and if they weren’t included, then all of the wellness programs in the country were doomed to failure.

The session was led by Dr. Don Powell of the American Institute for Preventative Medicine, and he started off  by telling the attendees his personal road to wellness, starting with his cigarette habit. I liked his tongue-in-cheek discussion of wellness milestones that included this one:




and this one:



Then he launched into the things that HR wants to hear the most: the cost of insurance, unwell employees, and the correlation between benefit costs and employee health. Solid stuff, and important for the attendees to know. But I was still waiting for a discussion about mental or spiritual wellness, which I finally got at Essential Characteristic #11 . . .






. . . and #16. Number 16 was particularly relevant to me because Dr. Powell introduced the concept of well-being as a replacement for wellness, and urged attendees to consider that a whole-person approach, including spiritual health, was truly an essential characteristic of a company approach to employee wellness well-being.




By this time I was pretty happy that Dr. Powell had gone beyond a cost benefit analysis of wellness programs to push the attendees into thinking of wellness in broader terms. But I had to wait until almost the end of his presentation to see if he would ask American companies to take a bigger lead in promoting employee health and well-being. It came in at #18:





Culture may be a popular buzz word right now, but I think the point is the same – a company needs to take responsibility for walking the talk about well-being. Buying wellness programs to reduce benefit costs just isn’t enough.

What does your company do to promote healthy employees? Your comments appreciated!













Whitney Houston’s HR Lesson? Wellness Is Not Negotiable

Yes, I am shamelessly exploiting the death of Whitney Houston to write a blog post and using her name in the headline to snag readers. 😉

Actually this idea has been rolling around in my mind for quite a while now, but it took the untimely death of an extraordinary talent to nail it down and give it context.

The lesson? Wellness.

The best definition of “wellness” I ever heard was that is was “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  This was said by a doctor during a lecture about integrative medicine. His message was that health care should promote wellness (as defined here) and joy, not only treat disease and illness ( “sick care”, he called that).

The foundations of wellness, he explained, were simple: optimal nutrition, fitness, proper sleep, stress management, and spirituality or joy. These items are not negotiable – they are items that you must do to be well. You cannot be well if you are a stressed out, socially unhappy, tired person, no matter how well you eat or how much you exercise.

Unfortunately, in most cases, companies in the US like to talk about all of the “wellness” initiatives they are making – like giving incentives for people to quit smoking, or playing games with prizes for weight loss. The major reason they do this? It lowers their benefit costs.

But many of those same companies overwork their employees, ignore their personal needs, and dismiss their spiritual or mental well-being. You want to take off the afternoon to go to the beach with your kids? Fuggedaboutit. What do you mean you were watching a video with your family and couldn’t answer your email? Bad performance review. Worked late last night and want to miss the morning meeting? Are you effing kidding?

No matter what the coroner determines Whitney Houston’s cause of death was, she was clearly not a well person, as her public struggles show. She was also a self-employed workforce of one, and that employer paid a very high price for ignoring all the components of wellness.

Someone needs to give American companies a message that employee wellness would be promoted by paying just as much attention to an employee’s mental and social well-being as they do to their weight or smoking habits. If they are really serious about wellness – remove employee’s stress by making sure they are paid well, are valued and not abused, are encouraged to sleep well, and have the opportunity to pursue joy.

Before it’s too late.