Tap into the Power of Networks for Employee Wellness Programs

January 8, 2019

Tap into the Power of Networks for Employee Wellness Programs

“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement, there is life and in change, there is power.” —Alan Cohen 

Seasoned HR leaders agree that decades of experience with traditional employee wellness programs have yielded only moderately positive outcomes. The high effort required for this low achievement of results has led to longstanding dissatisfaction.

Why continue to cling to an unsatisfying situation? It’s like driving an old, broken down car that’s well beyond repair. Ultimately it can’t take you where you want to go.

Now is the time to ditch the old model. A radical innovation is needed—one that dramatically upgrades the efficiency and results of employee well-being programs. 

It’s time to tap into the power of networks. 

The Power of Networks
Network thinking is on the rise. The complexity and rapid change of our emerging global business culture requires systemic, nonlinear thinking and approaches. We’re undergoing a tectonic shift from mechanistic, top-down, industrial-age thinking to web-like, bottom-up network thinking. Sociologist Manuel Castells has called this the “rise of the network society.” 

Why are networks so vital?

  1. Everything is made of networks. New science reveals that everything—from the global economy to the tiniest cell—is made of networks. 
  2. Networks are not random. Networks follow predictable mathematical formulas and share certain fundamental properties, such as the ability to spread ideas and behaviors fast. 
  3. Businesses can harness network effects to spread high health and well-being. Every company is made of networks. At least one includes people who already value and cultivate their health. If you find this informal network that already exists and give it effective tools and attractive ideas, it will grow. That’s what networks do. 

“Network effects are known to be present in all industries. . . . [They] proliferate in the business world.” —Albert-László Barabási, the author of Linked: The New Science of Networks

Not only are network effects powerful, predictable, and prevalent, but also they help businesses stand out from the crowd when harnessed intentionally to spread high health and well-being among employees. 

Network Approaches Help Businesses Stand Out from the Crowd

Typical Company Wellness Program Network Model for Employee Well-Being
Health risk surveillance Building personal health and well-being
Program-centric Person-centric
Incentive driven Practice driven 
Focus on interventions, fixes, and treatment Focus on supporting real life needs of the individual
Reducing risk and treating disease: e.g., standard diet and fitness, health risk assessments, biometric screenings, stress reduction, and sometimes mindfulness  Mastering essential skills for high health today: e.g., high health mindset, emotional well-being, balance and agility, restoring mental energy and focus, nutrient-rich eating, boosting capacity for high-demand periods 
Recruitment Connect and spread throughout networks of employees
Health care cost containment  Competitive edge for businesses, personal and professional success for employees
Expensive     Low price


Typical Wellness Programs Haven’t Changed Much
Consider the typical wellness program today, which acts much as it did decades ago regardless of outer appearances. Though new interfaces and delivery mechanisms continue to arise, they mostly distribute the same old approaches—e.g., standard diet and fitness, health risk assessments, biometric screenings, stress reduction, and sometimes mindfulness. The latest modernization has been in using big data for what amounts to health risk surveillance. Incentives (and sometimes penalties) are used as carrots and sticks. 

This traditional, top-down, program-centric approach focuses on fixes, prescribed directions, siloed interventions, and working from the outside in. It relies on recruiting individuals to join programs, driving them to engage, and pushing them to change. Often its primary purpose is to contain health care costs. And it’s expensive, not only because it often requires all-in payments for whole employee populations but also because we know by now that this model does not deliver the results we seek.

A Radically Different Approach
Contrast that with a radically different approach—a new network model for employee wellness. The network model focuses on building personal health and well-being by mastering essential skills required for high health in today’s world—e.g., a growth mindset for health, emotional well-being, balance and agility, restoration of mental energy and focus, nutrient-rich eating, and flexible capacity for high-demand periods. 

These essential skills, when integrated and mastered, represent breakthrough programming. When paired with the bottom-up, web-like, person-centered approach of the network-based model, we have an actual innovation that works from the inside out. Its focus is on regular practice inside employee communities. For distribution, it relies on attraction, trust, and natural spread via network effects. Its primary purpose is to set people and businesses up for success. Moreover, it tends to be lower priced than traditional employee wellness programs. Companies pay only for employees who join the practice community, and the return on investment is favorable for those who achieve high health and well-being.

The Courage for a New Way of Seeing and Working
What’s required now is the courage to leave behind the outmoded, frustrating known in favor of radical innovation and a new way of seeing and working. We stand to gain so much benefit. 

Transforming employee wellness programs is possible. Now is the time to do it. Advancements in program design and methods, novel insights about high health and well-being, and new network systems for delivery and implementation provide the means we have long been searching for to make this transformation a reality. 

The Authors: 

Joyce M. Young, MD, MPH, is Managing Director at Advanced Wellness Systems.