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If you want a successful wellness program in your office, take a tip from Oprah Winfrey. Don't bother with the conventional approach of bringing in experts to advise you, assessing your employees' current health, advising them of their risk factors, and then encouraging them with detailed information on health to take part in a lifestyle management program. That may seem eminently logical, but more often than not, it fails.

Instead, wellness educator Laura Putnam urges you to become a change maker and start a movement. Like Ms. Winfrey, who has ignited many movements, you should appeal to the heart.

"Experts speak to our brains and tend to overload us with facts – using scary statistics and depressing data. Agents of change, on the other hand, speak to our hearts – and they move us," the San Franciscan founder of the Motion Infusion consultancy writes in her new book, Workplace Wellness That Works.

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You want workplace wellness that excites people, rather than a program that tells them what they already know – and fails to motivate. That doesn't mean you can't have a program. But it needs a different structure and flavour. Shift your mindset from expert to agent of change. For example, it's common to have lunch-and-learn sessions in which speakers provide information on health. Instead, provide an experience and an incentive to act. Open with a video, or somebody's story, or a movement-based or interactive activity. Remember, less is more; don't focus on hammering people with a lot of boring stats. Provide times for participants to draw from their own experiences and their own knowledge base through group work. Issue a call to act, not at the end but early on – and repeat it regularly.

Create a vision for your wellness movement. Imagine what is possible. Don't settle for just the immediate physical benefits a wellness program might provide but consider emotional and social well-being. "Our health is more than just the sum of our risk factors. People want to know how to be their best self and even how to make the world a better place," she said in an interview. "It's important we look at the whole person rather than just risk factors."

Somebody worried about their financial well-being probably won't be enticed by an exercise program. Providing social opportunities may seem a long way from wellness but having friends improves emotional well-being and has been linked to more engagement at work. Salesforce.com gives employees time to work in the community during business hours because it pays off in their motivation and well-being. Think beyond exercise programs as you create your movement.

That's why she calls it wellness – a broad term. Brocade, a technology company based in California, has defined five pillars of wellness: Physical, emotional and mental, financial, sustainable, and family health. Its "BGreen" initiative draws the connection between being good to our bodies and good to the Earth. Over 200 employees participated in its annual bike challenge, combining physical and sustainable health.

A negative corporate culture or lack of trust in your workplace can undermine your efforts. After all, you are trying to create conditions so people will motivate themselves. So your culture must nurture well-being, not undermine it. It helps if you can weave wellness through your daily activities. Eileen Fisher apparel, for example, begins every meeting with a moment to reflect.

"That might not work at Goldman Sachs or other financial institutions," she notes. Indeed, when Goldman Sachs started a mindfulness program, it avoided the term "stress management," which has a stigma to it in that competitive environment. The organizers showed the link between mindfulness and productivity-performance. Each wellness movement, Ms. Putnam says, must fit the corporate culture.

Traditional wellness programs start with what's wrong about people, how to correct physical risk factors. Fear is prominent. But negativity doesn't keep people focused on their wellness for very long. They need a positive reason and positive feedback to excite them and keep them motivated. So start with what's right.

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Telling heart attack survivors that if they don't eat better they will die may have an initial impact – after all, they had a recent dramatic jolt – but she says participation in such programs dwindles to about 10 per cent after a year. On the other hand, Dean Ornish's program for reversing heart disease, while encouraging the same lifestyle management changes that other programs apply, replaces fear-mongering with hope and optimism. The doctor and medical professor encourages patients to "embrace life" and "get living." Compliance rates after a year are 80 to 90 per cent.

The tendency with traditional programs is to go big and be loud. Flamboyance is thought important to attract attention. She prefers a stealth approach, as with Goldman Sachs, and stress management. Try to integrate your activities into learning and development programs, for example, which tend to have far bigger budgets and uptake. "Instead of asking 'Are you healthy?' ask 'Do you have the energy you need at work?' Instead of asking managers if their employees are healthy, ask if they want better performance. That will get more financial support and motivate the participants," she said.

Design nudges to encourage better health. For $16,000 (U.S.), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nudged employees to take the stairs at its Atlanta headquarters through motivational signage, adding music and attractive artwork, and freshening the stairwell with new paint. The design house IDEO moved soda to the lower shelves in its drink machines and water and sparkling water to eye level, with positive results. Google uses smaller plates in its cafeteria to reduce calorie consumption.

Together, these ideas provide the framework for a movement. Just like Oprah.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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