Leveraging teachable moments among tips for boosting wellness programs

With permanent behavioural change so difficult to instil, how can employers ensure their wellness programs achieve their intended results?

At Benefits Canada‘s Healthy Outcomes conference in Toronto on Friday, Dr. Steven Grover, a professor of medicine at McGill University, shed some insight from his experiences dealing with the impacts of digital health programs. He’s the director of a program aimed at preventing heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer through education, exercise programs, counselling and other interventions and supports.

In opening his talk, Grover noted the many challenges faced by wellness programs. He cited, for example, a federal healthy living strategy that, among its goals, had sought to improve the proportion of Canadians with a healthy body weight. “Excess body weight increased over the 10 years,” he said of the disappointing results. Even getting good data to work with in the first place can be difficult. Grover cited self-reported data from Canadians that suggested 50 per cent were reaching 150 minutes of physical activity per week. When tracking their activity through a device, however, only 15 per cent were actually reaching that level.

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The barriers to doing better include confusion about what works, priorities that get in the way, costs and a shortage of health professionals, said Grover. Even incentives have fallen short, according to Grover. “We’ve lost a lot of our enthusiasm for incentives,” he said, suggesting that while they may get people to start doing something, they may not necessarily stick with it.

So what are employers that want to promote better health among their employers to do? “Making something fun and socially engaging has turned out, in our experience, to be the thing that generates the most returns,” said Grover. When it comes to health-focused games, it’s crucial to get the support of senior management and keep leaders engaged by giving them information in real time. As for health assessments introduced through the program, it’s important to break them into components and allow participants to fill out as much of them as they want, Grover suggested. “You really have to make sure that the individual feels in control of their journey.”

Other techniques include taking advantage of teachable moments. “There’s all kinds of teachable moments in people’s lives,” said Grover, who cited events such as a new baby or pet as opportunities to encourage lifestyle changes.

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“A new dog is a great opportunity to engage people in a healthy lifestyle change,” he said.

In the end, Grover acknowledged the need to accept the nuanced nature of success in wellness programs given that many people will fall out of their new habits. “It’s the nature of human behaviour,” he said, noting that some people will come back eventually. “I think that it’s the best we can do.”