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Changing Bad Employee Habits Will Take Time, Patience

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, March 15, 2010

A recent survey found that employers are frustrated that employees aren't taking advantage of their work-based wellness programs to rid themselves of unhealthy habits such as smoking and excess weight.

This frustration is understandable. The primary motive for the wellness movement, however well-intentioned, is to reduce healthcare costs, which are growing at unsustainable rates.

There is nothing wrong with looking at the bottom line, except that your business might fall into that reliably flawed expectation within the personal fitness movement that if you simply spend money, you will get good results.

Years ago, I read an essay which argued that our goal attainment processes are out of order. As best as I can recall with my graying memory, the essayist argued that the normal process of reaching a goal was: "want, work, get." In other words: "If I want to lose weight, I will exercise and eat right, and I will get the results."

Now, in the age of advertising, credit cards, and instant gratification, Americans have skewed the process into: "want, get, work." In other words: "If I want to lose weight, I will get the home gym, buy the $125 running shoes, or join the health club, and then I will lose weight."

Of course, what is left out of the second equation is the actual exercise–the work—that will result in the weight loss. We lace up the running shoes for grocery shopping. We join the health club but interest wanes. We see the guy with the six-pack abs on late-night TV. We see the five-easy-payments plans. We buy the exercise equipment, use it a few times—-or not—and tuck it under a bed. Don't believe me? Ask a fitness trainer how much health club attendance drops off –right about now—when New Year's resolutions get fuzzy. Do an eBay or Craig's List search for "Bowflex," "like new," or "still in box," and count the hits.

The evil twin of the "want, get, work" dynamic is instant gratification—best exemplified by the wonder diets that promise to shed 20 pounds in one week. The diets may work. But, the weight loss is almost always temporary. That is because the people who undertake these dramatic regimens may be prepared for short-term deprivation, but they haven't made the long-term lifestyle adjustments needed to keep the weight off.

I'm sensing that these mischievous twins have wangled their way into the boardroom. The suits in the C-Suite have listened to HR, they bought into the wellness movement as cost-effective, they built the on-site gym, they paid for the weight-loss or smoking cessation classes. So, where are the savings for the next quarterly report?

This is the tricky part. As I said earlier, the wellness movement's primary motivation is saving money. However, any employer, or employee, who embraces the wellness movement has to look at a return on investment that might not materialize in the next few quarters. Wellness is not a penny stock. It's more like a 30-year T-note. This is an evolutionary process.

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