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A heavy-handed approach can deter wellness program participation

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Even if their wellness programs comply with all state and federal laws, employers that push too hard to improve the health of their workforce still risk violating their employees' personal boundaries.

“Employees don't want to feel like control of their health is being taken away,” said Randi Dukoff, a partner at New York-based Vital Advantage Consulting. “When you start preaching to employees about their nutrition or weight or whatever it is you're trying to address, rather than educating them, they're likely to shut down.”

Benefits managers and wellness coordinators must be cognizant that employees may reject wellness strategies — including activities, educational programming, incentives and communications — that ignore the deeply personal nature of their health management decisions.

“So much of doing this right is about positioning it in a way that doesn't make the employee feel threatened, and that makes them feel like it really is about what's best for them,” said Ron Leopold, Atlanta-based health outcomes practice leader at Willis North America Inc.

For example, Chicago-based Aon Hewitt's 2014 Consumer Health Mindset Survey found that employees' top reason for not participating in a company's wellness program is they didn't find any elements relevant or applicable to their lives.

“You can't force your employees to want to change,” said Tracey Saliski, Freehold, New Jersey-based wellness program coordinator at CentraState Healthcare System. “You can provide them with all the resources and opportunities they need to make a change, but if they're not interested, they won't even take the smallest of steps.”

Similarly, a wellness program centered on incentivized participation or completion of physical activities could be viewed as indifferent to employee needs if they are not given time during the workday to partake in the activities. Forty-nine percent of employees in the Aon Hewitt survey said they did not participate in their employer's wellness program because it was inconvenient, not worth the time or their work prevented them from participating.

“The second it starts feeling like an obligation, employees will begin quitting the programs,” said Karen Curran, director of health risk management at Denver-based Pinnacol Assurance. “The simpler, easier and more fun employers can make their wellness programming, the more employees are going to keep using it.”