Monday, May 20, 2013

Wellness Program #Fail

Found on Piccsy
During the Human Resources Health and Benefits Leadership Conference, a group of us were talking about how people don't often share their wellness program failures.  So, I thought I'd take a few minutes to describe one of my ideas that just didn't pan out. 

We held a weight loss program in 2011 for people that had more than 30 pounds to loose. We partnered with LWS and they carefully interviewed and selected the participants. They assessed a number of things -- the support candidates had at home, health conditions that might be improved by weight loss, readiness to change, and what worked and didn't in past attempts at weight loss. 32 staff members expressed an interest in the program and 12 people were selected to participate. We had so much interest, we actually expanded the program from 10 to 12 participants to accommodate more people.

The program was highly individualized and designed around lots of one-on-one counseling with a nutritionist. We also provided other resources -- books, Fitbits, and group meetings to support participants.

At first, we were encouraged by participant's enthusiasm and some initial weight loss. (As a group, they'd lost 17 pounds in the first two weeks.) Then, I started to hear reports from LWS that sounded something like this, "I know no one lost weight this week, but they are eating more fruits and vegetables." I worried the participants would get discouraged if they didn't lose weight and sought feedback. What I heard from folks was that they didn't have enough time to shop, cook, or exercise. 

Between September 20, 2011 and January 3, 2012, the 12 participants lost a total of 28.5 pounds. That was less than one percent of their starting weight. 5 of the 12 participants actually gained weight during the program. 

We wrapped up the program after 12 weeks, but offered some additional counseling to three individuals that seemed to be having some success. During the next 12 weeks or so, they seemed to get derailed too. I know how difficult weight loss is, but the results of this program were dismal. This was the biggest investment we had made in helping people lose weight and we were wholly unsuccessful.

I can only speculate about the reasons, but my best guess is that the participants weren't in the preparation or action stage of change. I work with a lot of very intelligent people. They know if they are overweight and they know what kind of answers we're looking for when they're asked questions about the stage of change they're in. I don't think anyone intentionally duped us; I just think they were overly optimistic about what they could accomplish given what they were willing to invest. Since then, I learned about the commitment continuum and I've wondered if we would have fared any better if we would have tried to assess applicants level of commitment e.g., what were they willing to commit to doing to achieve their goals.

So, there you have it -- our biggest wellness program failure to date.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Janet, for posting your story. We need more HR executives like you who both invest in employee health and wellness and share your results -- including the outcomes that didn't pan out as you hoped.

Great work!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post. I thinks this gets to the heart of what we consider to be outcomes. Weight loss isn't the only metric worth measuring in this program. Self confidence, readiness to change (as you noted), skills for improved eating habits, impact on family members, etc are all areas that could be evaluated with an initiative like this. Just because they didn't lose weight as suspected doesn't mean the program was a full on failure. I think practitioners have an obligation to think more broadly and to speak to leadership more broadly (not falsely) about what success looks like.