by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

$92 million. $28 million. $15 million. These are the venture capital investments in wellness companies we’ve heard about in just the last 3 months. It makes you feel like chump change if someone is offering you only $5 million for a piece of the action (thanks, but no thanks).

What may surprise you (or may not, if you’ve been paying close attention) is that for all the hype around workplace wellness, the quantified self, Affordable Care Act endorsement of wellness rewards, mobile medicine and health, skyrocketing sales of fitness fashions, mindful-everything… we don’t seem to be getting any healthier.

According to the new Gallup-Healthways Well-Being poll, obesity continues its rise unabated. Not coincidentally, diabetes is increasing. And with the exception of just a couple states, the vast majority of the country doesn’t get enough physical activity to have a positive effect on health. If you don’t trust the data, just take a walk through the airport or your nearest mall on a Saturday afternoon.

I’ve already lived through 2 “golden ages” of health promotion and workplace wellness — the early 1990s and mid-to-late 2000s — during my 25+ years in the industry. It didn’t end well for some internal programs as well as vendors. For those of us left standing, it thinned the ranks, made what we do more visible, and possibly validated our approach/philosophy. Or maybe we were just lucky. 

In any case, as we turn the corner and head for home in the 2010s, there’s a fervor unmatched at any time I can remember. Not only are the usual experts proselytizing about the tremendous opportunities in wellness, but venture capitalists, politicians, and average Joes are all jumping on the well-being bandwagon: What’s your Fitbit® step count today?

It feels a little like the late ’90s tech bubble, when the NASDAQ soared to 5000+ in early 2000 (and just made it back to that level 15 years later) and every schmo was a genius investor, buying up shares of For those of us who lived through it, we could do no wrong — until the bottom fell out.

Why Things Are Different This Time

We don’t expect the bottom to fall out of wellness. Not this time around. But hardly because we’ve figured out something world changing. Indeed, much of today’s hoopla is misplaced:

  • Devices — and wellness people’s frothy fascination with them — are here to stay, but they’ll prove to be just a minor tool in the overall scheme of wellness.
  • Death Star-sized wellness portals/platforms are already suffering from the weight of their own bloatedness. In our rush to build in everything but the kitchen sink, the industry forgot to ask the user: What do you want? 
  • Challenge-itis has gripped the HR consulting world, even though no one has bothered to see if vendor sales pitches come remotely close to what happens in real life (absent steep rewards, interest in back-to-back-to-back challenges fades quickly).

But for all the misfires, the thing that promises to keep our industry growing is a shift in thinking. Wellness leaders are beginning to embrace the idea that employees and dependents are more than health risks/costs to be managed. Philosophically, we’re seeing a fundamental movement toward perceiving the people we serve as assets rather than balance sheet liabilities.

While it’s really not new, the concept of well-being as looking at the whole person is reemerging. It’s the recognition that most of us simply want to feel better — emotionally and physically — living free from the burdens of poor health, chronic disease, aches and pains, or injury. We want the strength and stamina to do what we love and aspire to; we want stronger relationships; we want to stress less about money; we want to help our families flourish, and truly thrive — not just today, but throughout our career and into retirement.

There have been enough failed experiments in the last decade, readjusting the reward/punishment extrinsic motivation levers and switches, to know that bribing and browbeating just don’t work. And although we’re a long way from truly having the well-being model figured out, at least there’s a desire now to move in the right direction… a movement we call purpose-centered wellness.

If that feels right to you, begin taking these steps now to shift your program’s image from fixer-of-all-that’s-wrong to a vital part of the organization that helps people achieve well-being and their life goals:

  • Support your community. People need connections to schools, neighborhoods, churches, civic organizations. You can highlight these groups in your wellness communications and offer suggestions for getting involved. You also can support charitable causes through your program by serving as a collection post, meeting facility, or volunteer recruitment source.
  • Alternate health assessments with purpose or value assessments. If you can’t go cold turkey on your longstanding HRA, add an inventory where you ask individuals to explore their values, passions, gifts, and talents. There’s nothing to score necessarily, but it forces people to take stock of how they’re spending their time/life and suggests clues about what matters most.
  • Extend your offerings. Experiment with social, emotional, spiritual messages and programs. Blend them with existing services early so it’s not perceived as a radical shift in your role. For example, consider a Walks of Life program to engage people in a fitness activity while encouraging them to explore life meaning and purpose.

It’s a start. And we’re not suggesting you abandon what works. But if you want real impact on well-being and not just cholesterol scores, plan now to move toward a more purpose-centered, comprehensive wellness program model.


# LRyan SelfhelpWorks 2015-12-22 01:20
Dean, current wellness programs have a place at work which is to create and maintain wellness as culture. This is good for emerging youth and for those who have healthy minds and healthy bodies. But, for those who have crossed the line to unhealthy minds and bodies the programs do little more than the tricks, pills and potions of old. Any program that can change emotionally based behaviors like obesity, anxiety, anger and loss of control; smoking, exercise avoidance, alcohol must focus on the development of internal motivation; i.e. self worth, gratitude, appreciation, service, and vision. They must also teach people how to come into harmony with short term discomfort for the benefits of long term well being and how to end the addiction to living life as a victim. They must learn how in the "heat of the moment" to retain their birth given power to chose what they truly want and deserve their lives to be. No...Challenge- itis with or without $92 million won't teach these. Lou Ryan
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# Felecia Rose 2015-07-12 14:50
In a word, the article is "wise." There is none so wise as the experienced. I'm working with a health education entertainer to help her "laugh your way to healthy" approach become known. Do you wise folks have any advice to guide us in our program development? Do you have a need for a comedian/singer /actress to communicate and help keep your audience engaged? Any desire to explore this concept further?
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# Susan Perry 2015-06-30 21:49
I like the idea of a values'gifts/pa ssion assessment. do you have a sample?
Sue P.
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# Beth 2015-07-01 16:25
The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a great place to point people to explore their strengths:

You could also provide a simple set of question to help participants self-assess their values, passions, gifts, etc. Examples:

1. What kind of work or leisure activities do you enjoy so much that you lose track of time?
2. What would you like more of in your life right now? Less of?
3. What are your top three gifts? What's 1 way you could use these gifts more this week at work, at home, or in your community?

Hope that helps; thank you for your comment & question.
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# MJ Shaar 2015-06-29 16:11
Love the post, Dean! Well said! Love the purpose/value assessment suggestion - such a valuable concept! Would be worth a fun 4-week challenge, I think! ;-)
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# Leslie Nolen | Radia 2015-06-24 14:30
Our take: wellness without context is worthless. Wellness is mostly a byproduct of doing OTHER stuff you care about, that happens to offer health payoffs.

Ex: Few people with diabetes have life goals that revolve around their A1C.

OTOH, we know LOTS of Type 1 & Type 2 folks who love cycling. What do they think/talk about? Glee in the activity, lust for new gear, NEVER about “wellness.”

Does it improve their A1C? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Does their A1C affect their cycling habits? Mostly, no. The wellness benefit is secondary, even incidental, certainly not exclusively intentional.

Supports your point that the only sustainable way to improve health is to place wellness in a whole-person context.

How well can most employers do that? Is the workplace even a meaningful place to attempt it? Tough questions.
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# Dean Witherspoon 2015-06-24 15:42
Tough questions, indeed. But vital to ask and answer. Great insights. Thanks for commenting.
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# Loretta 2015-06-24 12:24
Making our programs a vital part of the organization that helps people achieve well-being and life goals, is just what my company is doing. We have programs such as instant recess, that encompasses, one moment meditation, dance to music, inside games on break and lunches to name a few. Its fun, relieves stress, and builds a team effort and support.
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# Dean Witherspoon 2015-06-24 15:44
Sounds like a great place to work.
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