Why “Wellness” Will Never Work

Perhaps it’s part negativity bias and part brain cramp from trying to create wellness cultures in companies that say one thing and do another, but I’ve decided it’s time to sing a new tune. Admit it, wellness is great in theory but in application most people let alone organizations fall short. But rather than ditch the concept all together, I’m trying to use my right mind to see things from a new perspective. One that speaks to the brain’s hardwired craving to follow suit rather than a defensive position that says prove it first. One that links self-care to progress rather than weakness. And one that isn’t seen as optional or a good idea, but fundamental to business success.

First, let’s take a quick look at how the brain processes information. Integrative neuroscience research clearly demonstrates that we are quick to dismiss anything perceived to be a potential threat — even that which results in positive change.

Challenge 1: When we encourage people to do more when they’re already feeling overwhelmed, the brain shuts down. Although we logically know that self-care habits like getting more exercise, eating healthier and sleeping more are positive energy investments, to a depleted body and mind it feels like work.

Second, consider how communication about wellness fosters resentment rather than collaboration. When business leaders send top-down messages to foster wellness but continue on with their own path of multitasking, constant connection and exhausting habits employees receive mixed messages that speak loudly of contradiction.

Challenge 2: When leaders aren’t willing to lead by example, the brain assimilates non-conscious cues that are chaotic and cause tension and even resentment. Employees assume that if it were really in their best interest, leaders would follow suit. In addition, the unspoken story that drives individuals across the organization is that if you want to get to the top you must be wiling to sacrifice your health and happiness along the way.

Finally, without a clearly constructed and deeply personal purpose as the driving force behind positive change, motivation falters fast. Company-wide challenges can use competition as a stimulus for compliance for a while, but without lasting inspiration behavior change is seldom sustainable. When wellness programs are perceived as soft skills or optional, it’s nearly impossible to get buy in from people with a to-do list that’s already too long.

Challenge 3: Doing it “for the company” has never been the best momentum builder for employees. Each individual needs to connect their personal purpose with the goals of a health and performance initiative so that positive behaviors carry over into the rest of their lives.

For a health culture to truly THRIVE, organizations must use strategies that integrate how the brain receives, assimilates and utilizes information. Neurally aware companies recognize that the greatest resource we have is our ability to manage energy effectively. Consider these three brain-friendly tips to develop optimal human capital:

Tip 1: Engage Leaders. Simply put, don’t even consider wellness initiatives that aren’t seriously supported by the top, both in talk and in walk.

Tip 2: Start with Why. Always begin by helping employees to uncover their most personal drivers when it comes to mission, purpose, and vision. Guide them through the process of aligning their personal goals with the goals of the organization, and develop focus phrases that quickly remind them of what matters most.

Tip 3: Cue Consistency. Create prompts in the work environment to gently nudge employees towards progress. Review and remove any contradictory messaging and replace them with encouraging statements that are aligned with your goals. For example, hang a sign in meeting rooms that says “turn off the lights, and turn off your mind for a few minutes”, or place “steps towards progress” footprints in stairwells. Set up schedules to automatically default to 50 minutes in order to build in recharge time between meetings. Make sure language from leaders encourages working smarter rather than working harder. Even non-conscious cues in the environment can push wellness initiatives or pull people off course so use them to your advantage to fuel wellness mission success.

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