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Sun, Mar 13, 2011

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Employee Wellness: Farce or Untapped Potential?

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Monster spoke with employee wellness and benefits communication expert Fran Melmed about the Core Conversation she’ll co-facilitate with IDEO’s Aaron Sklar on Tuesday, March 15 at the 2011 SXSW Interactive Festival.

Titled, “Employee Wellness: Farce or Untapped Potential,” Melmed offered a sneak peek about what to expect from the conversation in Austin as well as a primer on what HR and executive leaders who can’t make it to SXSW need to know about this often overlooked, but critically important, facet of effective human capital management:

MonsterThinking: At first glance, the topic of employee wellness seemed, frankly, a little out of place on the SXSW schedule.  How does wellness fit in with the larger SXSW conversation?

Fran Melmed: Actually, SXSW covers a broad range of topics, especially if you include the film and music festivals. Even the interactive festival covers a great deal of topics beyond technology. Sessions are categorized under themes like “greater good” and “work+happiness,” which is the category for my and Aaron’s session.

It’s pretty  fitting that our session’s in this category as being healthy and feeling healthy is directly connected with being engaged with your work.

This is my first time attending, and I picked a pretty good year. It’s the first year that 2011 SXSW Interactive will have a track dedicated to health.   When you think about it, wellness programs are in some ways a public health effort…owned or directed by the employer.

MT: It seems SXSW is also dedicated to exploring new and emerging trends or technologies.  Why is health such a hot topic right now, particularly as it pertains to employee wellness?

FM: The reason that employee wellness is such a hot topic right now is simple: health care costs, for employers and employees, have gotten out of control.  Employee wellness programs are the next step in an ongoing evolution in how employers manage those costs—moving on from managed health care and consumer-directed health plans.

For the majority of companies, wellness programs are still very much in their infancy, but it’s becoming an organizational imperative.  It’s also well supported in the health care reform bill, which offers larger incentives for wellness efforts

MT: What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions surrounding employee wellness programs?

FM: Well, for me. Employee wellness isn’t a program. That’s one misconception. Helping employees and their families live healthier lives is a business imperative. If wellness is a program, there’s a beginning and an end. And as a program, it’s a vulnerable budget line-item. Wellness needs to be part of the culture.

Doing it well requires looking at the way work gets done within a company.  For example:

Does our work environment support or interfere with employees’ ability to be healthy? Physically, do employees have access to healthy food choices in the office? Mentally and emotionally, is there consideration for how a 24/7 work environment causes stress? Financially, are employees educated enough to prepare for retirement, including retirement health care costs? All of these things matter to our overall well-being.  Wellness goes beyond nutrition, fitness and tobacco cessation efforts, though they’re a really great place to start.

Another big misconception in my book is that wellness efforts only drive health care savings.  Having an employee population that embraces wellness and sees improvement in their health, and life, that’s going to have a huge impact on things like productivity, absenteeism and overall engagement.

MT: What do you hope people joining your SXSW conversation will get out of attending?

Everyone has an opinion on health and happiness and the way work impacts those two, so I think people will get something out of the conversation, no matter what their level of expertise is.

It’s a thorny conversation, particularly as we look at some of the most divisive issues surrounding corporate wellness efforts, like our sense of privacy and the setting of boundaries.  When you think about it, an employer-directed wellness effort really begs the question of when an employer’s right to dictate the personal lives of employees begins and ends.

Session Information: “Employee Wellness: Farce or Untapped Potential?

Be part of the employee wellness program conversation at 2011 SXSW Interactive!

Time: Tuesday, March 15 | 3:30 PM CT

Venue: Marriott Courtyard (Rio Grande B, 300 East 4th Street)

Tags: #eewellness


Want to learn more about employee wellness programs?  Check out Fran’s blog, Free Range Communication or follow her on Twitter.

Recommended Reading:

My Beliefs About Workplace Wellness

Stop Calling It A Wellness Program!

Is Your Employees’ Health Their Private Matter?

About the Author

Fran Melmed is the owner of context communication consulting, an award-winning HR communication consulting firm that specializes in workplace wellness and health care consumerism. Fran's worked with Saint-Gobain North America, Hewitt Associates, IMS Health and IKEA N.A., among others. She and her clients have received recognition for their work from the National Business Group on Health, the Society of New Communications Research, MarCom and CDHC Solutions. Fran is a co-founder of CoHealth, a virtual community for wellness innovators, and writes a blog on workplace wellness, free-range communication. When she's not working, she, her husband and their two girls can be found at the local fresh markets, hiking or at the movies.

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