Saturday, January 18, 2014

Middle Managers: The Overlooked Worksite Health Promotion Ally

According to a 2007 American Journal of Health Promotion article, "Manager Beliefs Regarding Worksite Health Promotion: Findings from the Working Healthy Project 2," managers at all levels in companies with existing corporate wellness programs rated the benefits of having employee health promotion lower than managers whose companies didn't yet have such programs.

This is unfortunate because managers, especially middle managers, are much more than permission givers who encourage employees to attend more classes. They can be valuable allies... or program saboteurs. Corporate wellness professionals must pay attention to these managers and cultivate a strong working relationship. A supportive and engaged manager creates the conditions within their work group to make and sustain lifestyle changes.

Managers' attitudes toward wellness generally fall into 1 of 5 categories:

1. Active enthusiasts

2. Passive enthusiasts

3. Neutral

4. Inactive opponents

5. Active opponents

Moving any of them up even 1 level toward being a champion will reap huge benefits for the program.

Most managers are inclined to back the wellness program, but remain inactive in showing their support. By helping managers understand and develop the skills to carry out their responsibilities, they will feel more comfortable with their roles. At that point, once managers have meaningful opportunities to participate that are within their responsibilities, they'll pick up the ball and run with it.

Clearly lay out the vision for the organizational wellness program. Explore the role wellness played in the company's past. Every company has a unique history -- how did employees pull together, overcome obstacles, and help one another to get the company where it is today? Presenting the wellness program vision to managers within a historical context links it to what the company is about.

For instance, company safety programs have a long history of keeping employees healthier through such initiatives as addressing alcohol, ergonomic, or sleep issues. Refer to the successes of the safety program and build on that history. If the organization has a longstanding commitment to being a good corporate citizen within the community, carry this history forward by promoting employee health and wellness.

Find the roots of the program in the past and tie it to the future. Then focus managers on creating workplace conditions for wellness program success and positive lifestyle choices.

The key to organizational wellness program success will be social... peer relationships, friendships, environmental norms. The Framingham study has shown the importance of friendships. After tracking an entire population over many years, they've discovered that people change health behaviors in clusters rather than individually.

Inform managers of key responsibilities within the workplace that influence sustained culture change, such as:

· Rewards and recognition -- Offer praise, increased autonomy, access to needed resources, first choice on job tasks

· Confrontation -- Ensure adherence to health-related policies while avoiding personal body language or facial expressions that imply disapproval or annoyance related to employee participation in programs

· Recruitment and selection -- Build department reputation as a supportive environment for health-oriented people and positive health behaviors

· Orientation -- Include information about policies and activities supporting health in employee orientations

· Training -- Identify and correct areas in the culture that present the biggest lifestyle challenges

· Communication -- Distribute information about work teams achieving employee health and wellness goals

· Traditions and symbols -- Create periodic traditions and symbolic activities that clearly demonstrate the importance of health within the culture

· Relationship development -- Support healthy activities for employees and their families, using strategies to move the unhealthy ones toward healthier alternatives and a culture of wellness

· Resource commitment -- Advocate on behalf of the worksite health promotion program with senior management for time, space, equipment, and other resources needed to pursue wellness practices.

Dean Witherspoon, CEO and founder of worksite wellness firm, Health Enhancement Systems, has 25 years in health promotion. He has served on the board of the Association for Worksite Health Promotion and held several regional as well as state offices. Dean is a nationally known speaker and author, having presented at more than 70 conferences and written hundreds of worksite wellness articles for national publications.

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