Wellness: a Double-Bang for Your Benefits Bucks

Written by Marsha Shenk and Mary Berry


    Employers face a huge opportunity to both lower costs and improve ROI on benefits spending, and to drive an engaged learning culture for the same investment: greatly improving customer experience, reducing health care costs, and boosting both productivity and retention.

    It’s not easy, but it’s looking more and more like a key frontier in competitiveness.

The experience economy is a fact of life: corporate culture drives employee experience, unmistakably impacting business results. Semco and SAS were pioneers; successes like Zappos, Google, and Genentech drove home the point: employee experience drives customer experience. Market leaders are competing by way of employee experience , and competition rages for Best Place to Work.

Barriers to best work environments, though, remain high. A 2012 Metlife study delivers a clear message to employers:

    “Reprioritize employee loyalty and satisfaction, or economic recovery may arrive with unanticipated setbacks for retention and productivity.

    “This year’s findings reveal a workplace that has grown more dissatisfied and disloyal, to the point where one in three employees hopes to be working elsewhere in the next twelve months.”

Perhaps more surprising, employee benefits is one of those barriers; the principles of the Experience Economy are rarely applied. A few missing links are in play:

  • Because of the required outlay, Benefits are viewed as a cost, part of employee compensation, and therefore handled by financial people: good people who think about money, not about employee experience or corporate culture.
  • Compensation experts so far have tended to create a laundry-list communication style, that often looks like every other list in the industry. Potential employees and current employees look at the list to make sure that their basic needs are covered, but seldom interact with benefits as part of the culture of the company they are joining.

    “Are employers losing site of the purpose of benefits? Despite budget pressures, employers would do well to keep their eyes on employee satisfaction and engagement.”

    Inside corporations, conversations about compensation and conversations about culture are two distinct discourses, taking place in different parts of the organization. The people designing the culture that the company aspires to don’t use the same language as those designing benefits: creating a ‘disconnect’ for the intended audience, and missing a huge opportunity to engage the employee population in the values of the company.

    Even market leaders have not grasped the opportunity to integrate Benefits into the desired culture and employee experience

  • Many employers have not noticed that employees are customers of the benefits program; customers who interact with the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook.
  • A 2012 Benefits newsletter warns,

    “Social media is definitely on everyone's radar, but when it comes to a corporate wellness program, you need to tune into another kind of frequency - social culture.”

    The Metlife study agrees, “Showing employees the value of their benefits and options requires getting their attention. The Study again confirms that employees (regardless of age) spend an average 30 minutes on benefits enrollment. And is this world of short attention spans, this is unlikely to change. Employers are going to have to make every minute count.”

    Communications are still too often in the form of a “total compensation” report: delivering yearly statements to employees describing what the company pays for benefits, insinuating that employees should add that number to their actual cash compensation when considering another opportunity.

    Employees often view the statement and say “why not just give me the money and let me make my own independent decision about what benefits I need, who will provide them and how I pay for them?”

    “A one-size-fits-all benefits package is a thing of the past. Instead, employers should consider choice, flexibility and customization to engage an increasingly diverse workplace.”

    “Nearly two-thirds of employees value voluntary benefits as a way to obtaining benefits that meet their personal needs”

    “Employees across the board highly value personalized benefits—to the point that they are prepared to pay the entire cost if necessary. They also say that the availability of benefits that meet their needs is likely to increase their feelings of loyalty to the company.”

  • Many employers are focusing on reducing the cost of healthcare, and realizing that will require engaging employees in wellness. But successes are slow and few.
  • “Balancing business costs and benefits needs is not about spending more—it’s about spending differently”

    Some forward-thinking start ups are considering making their healthcare benefits free, providing just catastrophic coverage and increasing base salaries to afford more choice on the open market. The culture they are creating is one in which they encourage employees to make good decisions about their wellness. Each employee negotiates independently for what s/he perceives to be necessities. This very individual design could give them a competitive advantage in recruiting a healthy workforce of the future.

  • Wellness is a highly individual matter with individual complexities that require ongoing learning and lifestyle changes. Wellness is deep behavior change. It’s both a new orientation – a new core question – and a new kind of engagement.
  • That kind of change is not driven by financial incentives. It can’t be reported once a year on a compensation statement. Behavior change is an exploding field, with fascinating insights .

  • There’s little question of the competitive advantage of being a learning organization.
  • It’s not a new challenge. Senge’s best-selling Fifth Discipline came out in 1990. However, few have succeeded. Workplace learning is a hot topic. Not surprisingly, those who have succeeded are the same leaders who recognize the importance of employee experience: Semco and SAS led the way; Zappos, Google, Genentech… and the same ones that specify learning as a core value.

  • Lowering costs – healthcare included – and generating new value is much more likely to happen in a learning organization, where every employee can participate.
  • Wellness requires new ways of thinking, new questions, and new behaviors.

      The bad news is: Companies that try to drive wellness without investing in becoming a learning organization are likely to fail.

      The good news is: the same investment will generate both outcomes, and with them, huge competitive advantage.

    Customer-experience-driven businesses require learning. Succeeding at business through good customer experience requires responsiveness: an ongoing interest in what’s up for the customer.

    Because technology, economic, and social reality are changing so fast, ongoing learning is the task of every business. The benefits of Wellness provide a new lens and a new tack.

    The opportunity and the challenge:

    Employee benefits impact and inform the employee experience which in turn impacts the customer experience which drives the business. For companies that succeed, rewards include improved productivity, recruiting, and retention as well.

    Success requires a very new approach:

    • Employees live in a digitized world where they choose how, when, and with whom to engage.
    • Engagement in the Age of the Customer is by definition “just in time” – when it meets my needs and interests.
    • How easy and enjoyable are your programs to interact with? Competitive with Zynga?
    • Dialog about wellness will succeed by being designed around learning, fitting the social and technical ecosystems that employees live in as they change moment to moment.

    Ready to embrace wellness and overall learning? Here are a few pointers:

    • Ensure that Leadership takes an authentic stand - talk backed up by walk, with lots of shared examples - for incorporating wellbeing throughout all of the actions of the company. That includes lots of variation in how employees learn about their own vitality and the wellness of their families.
    • Not only do employees benefit from learning and sharing knowledge, customers benefit as well. People who take extremely good care of themselves show up much differently to the customer and to each other.

      Leadership can play a significant role in modeling this behavior.

    • Be prepared for new employee demands for a healthy work environment, such as air quality, reduction of off-gassing. Consider getting ahead of the game by pursuing green building initiatives or LEED certification.
    • Self-organizing learning is a fact of life in the world of web 2.0.
      Organizations who want employees to learn - about wellness or anything else – will succeed by following standards every consumer enjoys every day: highly interesting, engaging and interactive experiences.
    • Learning is powered by curiosity. In the digital world, people readily self-organize around topics that interest them – often connecting with others of similar interests. Organizations can follow suit: goal setting and partnering on issues of common concern can become regular activities in a corporate culture without senior leadership “champions” or approval. Smart companies make it easy for anyone at any level in the organization to step up and lead a learning beehive, based on the pleasure of sharing the learning experience.

    • People vote with their feet.
    • In the digital world, they find the playmates they want, when they want them…

      One size fits all is a thing of the past – an obsolete myth of the Industrial Age.

      To be engaging, programs must be individualized and just in time: “What I need when I want it” is the operating standard in the Age of the Customer.

    Conclusion: Employers have a huge opportunity to both lower healthcare costs and get more from their investment in benefits, and to drive a learning culture for the same investment, greatly improving customer experience, as well as productivity, recruiting, and retention.

    Required steps:

    • Recognize that employee experience drives customer experience. They have to sync up.
    • Articulate the experience you want generated for your customers, and then articulate it for your employees.
      There will be gaps.
      What are they?

    • Build a compelling story about the benefits of working for you that includes learning and wellness.
    • Notice the role of learning in your culture
      What are you doing to cultivate it?
      How are you talking about it?

    • Recognize that you’re operating in a world where Apple, Zappos, Facebook, and Google set the standards.
    • Audit your benefits communications:

      • Are they personal?
      • Are they all about money?
      • Are they transparent and authentic – articulating what’s in it for the company and what’s in it for employees?
      • Are they interesting and fun? Will they spark curiosity?
    • Take the time to do it right. Think of a wellness initiative as you would a new product: getting the launch right is hugely important. Do your homework.

Stepping up to wellness and learning – while not for the faint-hearted – may catapult your company to higher performance: greater competitiveness and resilience.

Are You Fit to Thrive in Any Economy?