Would you be OK if your employer told you how to spend your salary?

We live in pretty interesting times. On the one hand, we have employers that are treating their employees more and more like adults by giving them a lot more flexibility on how they do their work. This movement, sometimes referred to as “results-only work environment”, has been adopted by many startups.

On the other hand, you have employers freaking out about their health care costs and being somewhat “big-brotherish”: eat this, walk this much, lose weight, go check your bio-metrics, answer this health assessment, go for an annual physical exam, etc.

This prescriptive attitude toward employee health would be like your employer “forcing” you into saving a certain amount of your salary; or making sure that you don’t buy too many stocks with your bonus and have a balanced portfolio; or even more extreme, your employer reprimanding you for buying a brand new car and giving you 5% less bonus in the next review. How ludicrous does that sound?

Today EveryMove launched a product killing that irony once and for all. But I’m not here to talk about that, so let’s talk about how we got here. If I had to describe one word that comes to mind, it’s FOCUS.

First of all, let’s all agree that we don’t want our employer telling us how to live our lives. Actually, some of us don’t even like our employer telling us how to do our job. Reward me if I do, fire me if I don’t. So don’t tell me what to eat, how much I should weigh, or how often I should go to the gym (breaking news: I personally don’t like going to the gym).

Too much FOCUS… on the wrong person!

For the last fifteen years, as health insurance costs rose disproportionally to other costs of doing business, a whole new industry was born to deal with that problem. The industry labels itself as “Wellness”. The vast majority of these programs were designed because these companies went to their customers (employers), asked “what’s your problem?” and the answer was “health care costs”.

Here is where innovation and customer development gets tricky. If you start from there, you quickly come to the conclusion that 20% of your population is responsible for 80% of the costs. So, fix the 20% and you cut your expenses by a large amount. Yay!

But let’s continue this line of thinking one more step. If you dig into what can be done to improve the 20%, you quickly realize it is primarily the result of poor lifestyle choices: bad nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, bad sleep habits, etc.

All these wellness companies started down a road in the early 2000s but they didn’t realize they took the wrong fork. They took the fork in which they believed they could change people’s behavior, particularly those that were most at risk. By designing programs for the 20%, the 80% invariably get left out. So instead of creating a culture of celebrating health, these programs create a culture of celebrating cures, celebrating (temporary) behavior change, celebrating weight loss, or worse, celebrating gimmicks tactics (get $50 to answer this survey that will tell you that eating an apple is better than eating French fries).

Most of these programs will tell you I’m wrong. It works and they have the data to prove it! Baloney! Rubbish, I say!

They claim their program works because a certain number of people did change their behavior, or a handful of employees lost 60lbs and health care costs maybe went down. First of all, these are all short-term metrics (maybe near-term), but you’ll be back for more of this drug in two years and the cycle will repeat itself. Second, any program, absolutely any program would have worked. The people that lost weight or became more active were ready for change, so the program wasn’t the cause of why it happened; it was just an accessory – maybe a catalyst. Think of it like buying new running shoes. You don’t become a runner because you bought new shoes. You might draw some short term motivation from new shoes but it doesn’t sustain. I don’t think Nike or Adidas would claim they change behavior. But the baloney wellness programs do.

Too little focus… on one thing!

The next big problem with companies trying to either save on health insurance costs or trying to change their culture to be healthier is they are trying to do too many things at once. Any good designer knows that you need a focus point on the ad or webpage. Any good email marketer knows that you need to have a single call-to-action on email messages. Any product company knows that’s not wise to launch five new products at the same time. You are just diluting the message and the energy individuals have.

Then, why there are so many wellness solutions that brand themselves as a “holistic”, “all-inclusive” or “broad”? Because that’s what the customer thinks they need. Truthfully, HR departments were never anointed as having to be the behavior change experts or how to create a culture of healthy and active lifestyles. But when they dangle a big check in front of the wellness companies, things get built that probably shouldn’t. More is better, right? Nope. Not at all.

When you mix diet (nutrition) with exercise (physical activity), it sounds absolutely awesome. How many times have you heard those two things combined? On television, from your doctor, on books about living well. But it’s not great if you are trying to either change behavior or if you are trying to shine the spotlight. Are you really going to celebrate an employee who ate a salad for lunch? Fundamentally, nutrition, sleep, stress and other lifestyle pillars are not social, don’t feel celebratory by and large, and they are mostly about reduction and restriction, except one: Physical activity. Physical activity is about freedom, about expansion, about more is better. It can be social, it can be private. The milestones of physical activity are naturally personalized. If you ran a half-marathon your friends might know that’s a big deal, but if Jane rans a 5K and she never ran before, they also know it’s a big deal for her. It’s a self-adjusting system where you are at the center.

Which brings me to…

The future of your relationship with your employer and physical activity is one of being supportive, not prescriptive. It’s one in which you choose whatever app or device you want to use (BYOD, bring your own device). It’s one in which the employee can choose to participate in any way they want to participate doing whatever physical activity works for them with whomever they want to (not only coworkers). Not only that, it’s one in which the employer is rewarding you for things you did that support a culture of fitness as much as a culture of collaboration, a culture of getting things done, a culture of high-performance, a culture of fun with purpose. It’s not focused on any outcome in particular, or trying to change you, or even forcing you into something that’s not natural or motivational.

You can try a dozen tactics to get your kid to eat broccoli, but nothing will be as effective as her seeing other kids at school eating broccoli. Shine the spotlight at the kids eating broccoli. Recognize them. The rest will take care of itself.

PS: The product we just launched is EveryMove @Work. For employers of all sizes, an incredibly easy to setup Culture & Recognition engine around fitness. Go check it out.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.