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by Joseph Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS

While any C-suiter or human resources executive worth their salt recognizes the value of wellness initiatives, few possess the wherewithal to appoint appropriate personnel to steward high impact programming. Recent literature has demonstrated surging popularity of instituting wellness programs within the workplace as a means to suppress costs associated with healthcare claims and to better engage employees through educational and interactive campaigns which incentivize participation. The latter efforts serve to attract high potential employees and retain high performing ones. But well intentioned initiatives, whether elaborately designed (i.e. tiered incentivization schedules and healthcare rebate programs) or groundswell influenced (i.e. evaluation and retooling of organizational policies), are rendered naught if undertaken by the wrong person, or group of people.

A great deal of my professional life has been dedicated to helping organizations improve their health and their bottom line. Much of my career has been spent in the trenches of non-profit organizations, most recently having assisted with the design and implementation of a once celebrated program at one of the nation’s largest private research universities. A changing of the guard in the upper limits of the organization’s stratosphere had a profound trickle-down effect. Wellness was no longer a priority and its fate was decided by a cadre of glorified bean counters – heavy in title, but light in logic – who decided that it would continue solely in the form of educational workshops and health fairs. The responsibilities associated with the vestiges of the program were distributed among staffers who lacked until recently, any experience with leading a wellness program.

1. Benefits Director

Unfortunately, wellness responsibilities are inserted into their immense bandwidth of job duties. In organizations large and small, these professionals are engulfed by an inferno of obligations, ranging from researching, designing, availing subsidized and fringe employee benefit packages while working closely with an assortment of third party administrators to consulting human resources on matters related to compliance and compensation. While its helpful if these professionals encompass a cursory understanding of wellness programming, trends, and governance, few truly do and depositing another hearty scoop of responsibilities makes for an ineffective and likely crotchety benefits director.

2. Athletic Director

On the surface, sliding the plate of wellness responsibilities to the side of the table the athletic director is seated on makes sense. But much like the above mentioned benefits director, ADs and often times their associates are overwhelmed with a chockful of responsibilities that populate hectic schedules. ADs and benefits directors should instead be tapped for committees to infuse the program with diverse insights and to possibly serve as ambassadors for the program to increase visibility and that’s if time permits. In smaller institutions, a recreation or fitness director may also take ownership of a wellness program, but finding one who understands wellness and can competently handle both is like the metaphorical winged purple unicorn – perhaps the same kind that the Donald and Hillary have ridden to capture their respective party’s nomination. In most instances, you’ll end up stumbling upon a puffed up intramural referee or someone who hobbled through a few exercise science or nutrition electives during their undergrad years.

3. Fitness Enthusiast
Far more times than I’d like to admit, I have seen large organizations, including Fortune 500 companies and many colleges that have produced their workforces, invoke the expertise of a fitness buff to run their program. What qualifies one as a fitness buff, you ask? They do yoga or Pilates a couple times a week. Or maybe they played a college sport. Or perhaps they have a personal training certification that requires a pulse and credit card number. Or maybe they’re the only person in their department who registers a normal BMI. Whatever the case, these people are ill-suited to run a program in its entirety. Instead, their passion and vision for fitness could be harnessed to fuel program initiatives and save the 60-90k for someone who knows what they are doing.

4. Benefits Brokerage Firm

Smaller organizations, especially those who are self-insured, will reach out to their benefits broker for guidance. Or as one Pennsylvania based benefits firm did, sweep in sans solicitation and impose their will onto unsuspecting companies. Value added, they considered it. But an executive of one of the companies the firm serves, experienced plantar fasciitis and debilitating shin splints when he ascribed to the “walking program” set forth by the firm and a fly-by-night wellness outfit. The program called for accumulating as many steps as possible throughout an eight-week period which could be tabulated on mobile tracking devices they provided. An account representative at the benefits firm named Sean (whose real name we are protecting), when pressed on the issue of injuries sustained by our executive friend, failed to acknowledge the difference between participation and outcome based programs and how reasonable accommodations must be availed to those with conditions or adaptive needs. The said performance based by most steps tallied “walking program” that his firm and the wellness outfit collaboratively hatched distorts the role of participating in regular physical activity and actually encroaches on promoting exercise bulimia.

While professionals from each of the aforementioned sects possess distinctive skills, the leadership and provision of effective wellness strategies and accompanying programs is best suited for seasoned health professionals with a deeper understanding of human physiology, determinants of human behavior and epidemiology.

 

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