A New Way to Wellness: Maybe It Isn't a Business Strategy After All

Shawn Connors
November 29, 2011 — 1,841 views  
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  • What are the 4 key challenges we face
  • 4 megatrends of opportunity you can't miss
  • 9 ways to identify the coming health renaissance
  • 6+ questions to help think creatively about the future

The certification of wellness coaches has become a new business model onto itself these last few years. Thousands of trained, certified, and enthusiastic professionals are coming into the workplace wellness space. We're encouraged by their curiosity, new ideas, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurial spirit. Many wellness coaches now work for big employers. But we're hearing many of them are beginning to start their own small businesses. They're entrepreneurial oriented, social media savvy, smart, and energetic.

This influx of new people into wellness is refreshing.The wellness community needs new ideas and perspectives. It's time for a shakeup and disruption. Wellness entrepreneurs, powered by new technologies and market demands, can take wellness to a new level and establish a sustainable and significant industry. The opportunities have never been greater.

Workplace wellness pioneers have accomplished much during the last three decades. Return on investment (ROI) and health outcomes data, where comprehensive wellness programs exist, have been exceptional. Evidence-based practices give us guidance based upon sound experience. The science, if not the art of wellness, has been broadly applied in practice.

However, some legacy issues are surfacing that require new thinking about how to offer wellness services.

The 4 key challenges exerting pressure on existing workplace wellness practices are:

Incentive oriented: Low engagement in wellness programs is avoided, at least in the short term, by the use of financial incentives. However, it remains to be seen if financial incentives can result in sustainable behavior change. The incentives themselves often represent the largest part of wellness budgets. And they're attracting proposed Federal regulations because they tie clinical and other health information into eligibility for premium discounts for the group health insurance plan.

More privacy regulation: The screening and disease management disciplines incorporated into wellness programs have resulted in workplace wellness participants coming under the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA), the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The end users of workplace wellness services are increasingly being perceived as "patients" with all the associated protections.

Commoditization:  Wellness program providers use similar standards and procedures that depend upon Health Risk Appraisals (HRA).The HRA data then triggers interventions based upon individual and group risk profiles. The result is the wellness community moves in a procedural lock step, thus limiting creativity and innovation on the front line.  As a result wellness has become somewhat of a commodity. And some say, "a little stodgy." You could look at almost any wellness company Website, and replace just the name of the business with a competing organization and none would be the wiser.

Perception of failure: We must forgive people who do not believe wellness works. The US population has become increasingly unhealthy during the birth and evolution of the workplace wellness movement. The obesity issue has given us all a daily, visual reminder that we're not yet impacting population health. In fact, not one single state achieved the Healthy People 2010 objectives for keeping obesity to a certain percentage of their total populations. It's easy to confuse population health issues with workplace wellness effectiveness.  But ultimately we have to find ways to improve the health of the whole population.

These 4 megatrends will present opportunities to help wellness entrepreneurs overcome current road blocks to success:

Mass acceptance of social media: According to Hope Health's Managing Editor, Jen Cronin, "Social media will soon be offering us many different ways to connect with people in local communities. People will be able to find walking partners, someone to share caregiving help with, and local events to stay healthy and socially engaged." We believe social media will successfully tap into local communities in new and creative ways.  People in a community will soon be able to find others of similar health interest to partner with and meet in person.

Intense interest in the environment: Being aware of our natural environment and the earth's ecological balance will make people want to reconnect with nature. There will be a greater desire to be tied into outdoor activities.

Renewed focus on education: Improving the intellectual and physical development of our children will be a top priority in every household and community.

Demographics: The baby boomers will be looking for new experiences and causes. They'll be checking off their life's to-do list, and looking for fun and interesting ways to stay mobile and independent.

A Renaissance is Coming in Health Education and Wellness

Workplace wellness started as a fitness movement 30 years ago (Association for Fitness in Business). But empty workplace fitness centers and low numbers of employees exercising indicated a need to become more comprehensive in approach. By the mid-1990s HRAs started becoming the foundation of workplace wellness programs. And because comprehensive wellness programs claimed to be able to reduce healthcare costs, tremendous pressure remains to make sure that is actually happening.

 It feels like the wellness profession is where the medical profession was in the 19th century --before it was aware germs existed. It's like we're learning, but still missing something important that will soon be obvious.

 Here's What the Renaissance May Look Like

 • Wellness as a definition will probably change or go away. Wellness currently is about primary prevention (lifestyles), secondary prevention (screenings, immunizations, check-ups, etc.), and disease management (drug compliance, interventions, rehabilitation, etc.).  We'll raise the bar and talk much more about living to our full potential. The screening and disease management services will fall under a treatment-oriented category.

 •Wellness is a holistic, natural, and spiritual way to exist. In some significant ways we'll return to the natural environment and reconnect. Wellness now is far too much about the manipulation of data and people. Wellness must be about the celebration of life, the joy of being here, and a journey of accomplishment and discovery.

 •We'll move up stream and make sure our children learn the joy of movement, the wonder of nature, and the fulfillment of artistic expression. And we'll begin to stress the importance of mathematics, engineering, and the sciences as part of a holistic, intellectual, experience we want for our kids. Saving sea turtles, for example, fires up the child's imagination in all these wonderful disciplines.  

 •"Intuitive eating" provides some insight in how we may use our own biological cues to live better. This concept involves self-monitoring for fullness, texture and taste. We'll see this same self-monitoring approach evolve in movement and other life skills.

 •Knowledge will proliferate horizontally in a community. Hospitals, businesses, and organizations will interconnect via events, venues, and locations not confined to the silo experience of a building. Businesses will integrate wellness programming with other resources in the broader community.

 •Geographic distances will become less of a barrier. Our interest in intellectual and spiritual growth will include the world in its pursuit. And ways of living will be shared and modified more than ever before. We won't think of the term "diversity," it will just be a fact of life.

 •These changes will exhibit themselves in more people walking and hiking. More events will be educational and involve movement and physical contact with one another. There will be more positive-oriented "flash events" and get-togethers. Technology will start to go under the hood, and we'll enjoy technological benefits without as much obsession. We'll use technologies to enhance the human experience in ways we simply can't imagine.

 •The business models of those offering life skill improvements will be more community based, unabashedly more capitalistic, and highly personalized to each individual. Products and services will emphasize simplicity, less-is-more, ease-of-use, portability, easy maintenance, and affordability. Creativity and new ideas will flourish. Apple's iPhone, iPad and other amazing new products and services are a glimpse of what is coming.

 •Living healthfully will not be considered the type of thing that requires discipline or hard work. It will be easy, natural, and enjoyable. Health professionals will talk more about very small steps people can take. Recommendations and guidelines for life improvements will be sustainable and highly relevant.

 6+ Questions for Wellness Entrepreneurs

Is there a way to decouple some wellness programming from HRAs and data mining, but still get high participation? Can we develop programs that are so attractive people want to join in without needing to be financially incented?

Should you be targeting a new client and making money in a different way?  For example, is there a way to use advertising or couponing revenue to fund wellness programs? Can you approach workplaces from outside their walls and draw employees to you? Are you a consultant, event planner, coach, public speaker, communicator, or a social media facilitator? What roles can you play for which you can charge a fee for? Or, can you take a fair percentage of a new revenue source you help create?

Could local merchants put on programs in the community endorsed and financially supported by workplaces? Are micro-events, flash-fit events, and quick get-togethers possibilities to add an element of surprise and spontaneity?

Can you make your communication more interesting, relevant and promising? Can we focus on the benefits of having more energy, sleeping better, feeling stronger, looking great, thinking faster, and moving with ease?  People are not too inspired by their cholesterol and blood pressure values. Can we move testimonials to the home page, and the supporting data to a link?

Are there ways to share community resources so small businesses can participate? Can you aggregate the organizations in your community and then offer a central program? Can you use experts in different disciplines, such as financial literacy to generate interest? Money and health are connected in many fundamental ways.

Can you tie together different populations and create educational events. Older people and younger people, or employee volunteers and school programs?


Be open to even subtle new things people are doing to connect with one another in an effort to improve health. We don't have the step-by-step guide yet for implementing a new way to wellness. But it's clear that as a wellness community, we're at a crossroads and about to move to a new stage.

Maybe "wellness as a business strategy," the name of a popular group on LinkedIn®, is the correct way to think about all this. But maybe not. Maybe wellness isn't a business strategy after all. Maybe it's something more fundamentally important to who we are and the way we live.

Let's focus on primary prevention (lifestyles). Let's come up with new, community-based models, and improve the health of entire cities and counties instead of just lone businesses. Then we can make an impact on population health. Let's make the places where we live vibrant and engaging. Let's uncover the gems in our own backyard and start telling those inspirational stories. Don't wait for permission. Don't wait for some expert to tell you what or how to go about building your wellness business. Trust your instincts and dive in with your ideas and concepts. The next advancements in wellness are going to come from unexpected places. It's your turn to lead. 




Shawn Connors

Shawn M. Connors is President and Founder of Hope Health. For over 20 years, his work has focused on developing Hope Health into America's #1 employee health communications provider. Hope Health is a business-to-business direct marketer, dedicated to superior customer service. Hope Health serves thousands of corporations, and distributes nearly two million pieces of health promotion literature to American businesses each month.