Engagement, Relations and Wellness. What’s the Difference?

One of the exciting things about working with Dovetail Software is the chance to dive into some interesting discussions with really smart people.  This question came up in week one, and it still has my head spinning.

Employee wellness programs have been all the rage for well over a decade.  Spiraling healthcare costs have prompted companies to start thinking proactively about the health of their teams, and a bevy of programs have been established to address the root cause of the costs.  (Root cause of healthcare costs.  I get all tingly just thinking about it!)  I remember the first time my company discussed charging smokers more for health insurance.  Amongst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth (mostly by smokers), the issue was raised of the legality of “punishing” a group.  Would it be considered a disparate impact?  Would be face potential legal action?  Could we get around it?  In the end, we didn’t charge smokers more for their insurance.  But we did give a discount to non-smokers.  Semantics, to be sure, but there it was.

This has now expanded into tiered insurance plans that include required health screenings and smoking cessation programs for the best plans.  And why shouldn’t it?  We charge more for every other type of insurance based on lifestyle, age, location and other variables.  It’s all about actuary tables and playing the odds.  Nothing new here.  We’ve accepted all of this as part of doing business and reducing risk.  And the returns speak for themselves.  This HBR article from December of 2010 puts the returns for Johnson & Johnson at $2.71 for every $1 spent.  Not bad at all.

That said, we too often ignore these same lessons when it comes to employee relations.  We know that there are some issues that will cost more than others.  Union drives are pricey, and if you are in the middle of a vote, it’s usually too late to change the outcome.  When turnover spikes, we scramble to hold onto our key talent.  By then, the internal and external forces that impact retention have reached a critical point that we very often have no control.  Our efforts are time consuming and expensive, and may or may not have any impact.  We are chasing lightning long after the thunder has subsided.

So how do we get in front of it?  We talk a lot about employee engagement, which is intended to be the proactive piece of employee relations, but in practice is it a litany of issues raised by those who haven’t left yet.  We too often ask leading questions that we hope will get us increased scores, but we don’t always get the level of candor from our teams we really need.  Most often we use multiple choice, which restricts the responses right away.  From there we analyze the areas that are in trouble, while often ignoring those that have “better than average” scores.  But do you really know what is going on?

One Page Talent Management by Marc Effron and Miriam Ort do a nice job of diving into why engagement efforts are so often lackluster, starting with the fact that every consultant has their own definition.  On top of that, they are generally snapshots in time.  To be effective, they need to be action oriented and clear enough for any leader to interpret on their own.  They reference Gallup’s Q12 survey as a short questionnaire that can can predict business outcomes, including turnover and profitability.  Simple to use, simple to read.  Go figure.

This is one of the very few tools, though, that we use to try to proactively measure and impact employee relations.  Why?  What is the difference between ER and wellness?  Why don’t we spend the same amount of time and effort to make sure our organization is as healthy as our team members?  My guess is that it’s hard.  And requires us to think differently about the work we do.  That’s called innovation, my friends, and I’m betting every single one of you can find that word somewhere in your company mission or vision.

I’m looking forward to digging into this issue more.  Dovetail Software is hosting a webinar on May 22nd on the topic, and I’m geeked to get to moderate.  Especially since the panel consists of HR luminaries Steve Browne, Paul Smith and Amy Dillman.  You can go here to register.  No strings, I promise.  Totally free.  And if you don’t like it, I’ll personally refund your money.  How’s that for a proactive offer?

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