How to Avoid the Scarlet Letter in Your Employee Wellness Program

scarletLetterHester Prynne struggled with the open shame and guilt of sin—much like many employees today who are forced to endure the shame placed upon them by well-meaning employee wellness programs.

The name Hester Prynne may not ring the bell of our memory, but many of us remember what she was forced to bear. Hester is the key character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. She gives birth to a daughter, revealing her affair.  Upon being found guilty of adultery in 17th Century Puritan Boston, she is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her dress as a sign of shame.

With employee wellness booming across America, we are seeing some effective initiatives and some flops. Mixed within both spectrums of the attempts at employee wellness success, is the unintended consequence of employee shame. “Laura” is a modern-day Hester Prynne.

Laura has wrestled with her weight throughout her adult life. It came to her honestly; you could say it was bad genes. Growing up in her family, food was the center of every occasion. If there was a celebration, food was present in abundance. Depression? Food.  A sporting event on T.V?  Potato couching and food was in order. Her mom is type 2 diabetic and her dad has bad knees—all the result of poor health and hefty waistlines.  Growing up in this unhealthy environment, she barely had a chance of succeeding with her health. Today, she despises standing in front of a mirror or shopping for clothes. These reminders of her weight are painful. Worse now, however, is how her employer piling on the shame.

They called it a health fair but there was nothing amusing to this mandatory employee get-together. Seeing the need to reduce medical insurance premiums, Laura’s employer enlisted the services of an employee wellness vendor who promisedthe CFO and HR Director to deliver cost savings through disease management. Biometric testing was the first step in their new journey of wellness.

Employees like Laura, who didn’t measure down to the BMI standards set forth by the vendor, were the target. Others employees who had high blood pressure were also exposed. Best of all, the vendor had a cessation plan for any employee who found tobacco a source of pleasure or need.

Employee wellness is a strategy for building morale, but the strategy can backfire if employees like Laura are branded with a scarlet letter of poor health. Therefore, how can we implement effective wellness programs without undue embarrassment of our employees? Obesity, tobacco use, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol must be addressed. Yet, how? How can we as employers manage these ailments without shaming the employees who need our help the most?

Three Ways to Guard against the Scarlet Letter

 1.       Be aware.

I credit Brad Cooper, CEO of U.S. Corporate Wellness, for opening my eyes to this flaw in many wellness programs. Until I heard him speak on this subject it had never crossed my mind that our wellness programs could bring humiliation on employees. Rarely will any employer purposefully try to embarrass employees with their wellness initiatives, but it can unwittingly happen. In a recent conversation with Brad regarding this subject, he told me, “You don’t want your employees to feel like they are being sent to the principal’s office.” Wellness initiatives that shout “You sinner!” to the overweight or smoker can negate our best efforts—not to mention hurt the very people we want to help. Therefore, the first step in guarding against the scarlet letter is to be aware that employee wellness programs CAN impart shame. This understanding, alone, is all that is needed for some HR and wellness leaders to alter how they communicate, promote and execute their wellness initiatives.

 2.       Love with compassion and understanding.

For a few people, health may come easy. They may be able to eat freely and without constraints and never gain a pound. Their body may evenly distribute weight. Their body may tone-up well with no, or minimal, exercise. For most of us, however, looking healthy is a battle—a battle we can’t seem to win.

Our employees don’t wish to be unhealthy. They don’t want to be addicted to tobacco. They don’t like being overweight. They want their cholesterol and blood pressure to be ideal. They know they need to engage in some form of regular exercise. And, they may be very aware their lifestyle choices contribute to their poor health. But it’s a battle. It’s a battle they want to win. It’s a battle; however, they were set up to lose because of genes or decades of living in environments where healthy lifestyles were non-existent. Changing lifelong habits doesn’t come easy. Tough love may be part of the solution for those who struggle with these battles, but before we can offer tough love we need to approach these employees with a true love evidenced by compassion and understanding.

 When we initiate a wellness program the success may often be determined by how employees perceive the motive behind the program. If employees believe the impetus of the wellness program is to save the company money, they will be less likely to engage. However, if they believe the employer truly cares for employees and is looking to better their lives, they are more likely to embrace the initiatives. Love, true love for employees, can go a long way in finding success with wellness.

3.       Help the healthy stay healthy.

The wellness programs that have the highest risk for imparting shame on employees are those programs that target only the sick. It is not uncommon for the first reaction of an organization seeking to start a wellness program to attempt to get rid of disease—eliminate sickness and chronic conditions. While a good wellness program will help the sick get well, the best programs also aim to help the healthy stay healthy. Preventative initiatives and strategies to help employees maintain health are the marks of well executed wellness programs. This is true, not only because they serve as preventative cost measures, but also because they reduce the opportunities for targeted employees to feel segregated.

If the wellness program targets only smokers then the smokers will feel ostracized and branded. However, if the program includes reimbursement for gym memberships, educational lunch-and-learns and wellness coaching for ALL employees, then those employees who are in need of smoking cessation will not feel as singled out. Conversely, if an employee feels “targeted” he will become defensive, which will lead to a lack of engagement. A well-rounded employee wellness program that provides opportunity to help the healthy stay healthy and the sick to get well will have the best chance of eliminating scarlet letters.

What can you add?

If you have been a part of a wellness program where guilt and shame was thrust upon you, share your story here. If you have other ideas on how to guard against the scarlet letter in employee wellness, your comments are welcome too. Share your thoughts in the comment boxes below so that we can build upon each other’s experiences and insight.

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This post was originally published in my Jack In The Team Box HR and Leadership Blog on July 5, 2013.

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About Jack W Bruce
Jack W Bruce Jr. is a novice blogger, husband and father of four, living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a lover of God, a reader and a wanna-be runner. Jack’s blogs include www.jackwbruce.wordpress.com and www.jackintheteambox.com. Jack can also be found on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/jackwbruce.

3 Responses to How to Avoid the Scarlet Letter in Your Employee Wellness Program

  1. William McPeck says:

    Avoid the Poor Manager/Supervisor Scarlet Letter

    If employers are going to hold employees accountable for their health, employers also need to hold supervisors/managers accountable for their performance. To accompany mandated employee health, employers need to mandate manager/supervisor performance. Employer mandated employee screening will be accompanied by mandated supervisor/manager 360 degree performance management completion. Any supervisor/manager with a negative feedback report will be mandated to attend people management training/education and be subject to up to a 30% decrease in their base salary.

    Employee wellness programs are a non-starter in a non-supportive work culture, climate or environment.

  2. Pingback: Corporate Wellness: Of the People, By the People, and For the People

  3. Great article! I would just like to add that the shame thing is also pre-disposed to backfire. To illustrate I would like to use this quote from The Wire:” shame’s some tricky sh*t ain’t it. Makes you feel like you want to change and then beats you back down when you can’t”. Shame is stress. And stress will mess up your efforts to change. Only to add some extra shame. A shame that still so many wellness providers and gouverments think that the shame tactic wilt amount to any good.

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