Get in the game: Health coaching helps employees buy into wellness

Employers are increasingly enthusiastic about biometric testing, according to a 2013 survey of 380 corporate benefits managers, published by software company bswift. Results showed that 77% of large employers test their employees for such risk factors as high body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, up from 61% last year.

However, the survey indicated that employers are reluctant to hold employees accountable for improving out-of-range biometric values revealed by their tests. Only 15% of the large employers that responded to the survey offered incentives for showing progress toward improving an out-of-range biometric value. This may be because they don’t know how to support employees in reaching their goals.

Biometric screening offers value in identifying employees at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other costly and debilitating chronic conditions. However, employers will probably not see a return on their investment if their employees don’t act on the results. Having information is often not enough to inspire people to make healthy changes.

Also see: Study links health coaching to weight loss

For most people, it’s hard to suddenly give up behaviors that bring short-term pleasure or relief from stress. It’s easy to believe that it’s not possible to change. But when people realize how changing serves what they care most about, they discover a deep, lasting, uniquely personal source of motivation. In this new context, the doubts and fears fade and the person becomes determined to achieve this meaningful goal, no matter what it takes.

Unfortunately, information such as the risk of cancer to smokers may not be enough to fuel that personal desire. Losing weight in and of itself may not mean anything to an obese person, but being able to walk without feeling joint pain may be very meaningful.

So what can employers do?

Provide both incentives and one-on-one support through health coaching. Incentives provide the initial spur to action. Trusting relationships with health coaches can inspire lasting motivation and provide guidance that activates both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Responders to a recent survey of 245 benefits managers, administrators and human resources professionals indicated that workplace wellness programs perform the best when incentives are part of the program. Whether in the form of cash contributions to HRA accounts or reductions to premiums or deductibles, incentives have proven to be the best way to get the most reluctant employees to take steps to meet health goals. The problem with incentives is that they are extrinsic motivators.

Financial incentives alone don’t have the power to sustain engagement. After the reward has been received, the employee will go back to old habits unless they have developed a personal desire to stay engaged.

Also see: 4 elements of a well-designed wellness program

When an employee is listening because she has just learned she has prediabetes, that’s a good time to set her up with a personal health coach who can help her build a realistic, manageable plan for making healthy changes. Using motivational interviewing and other sophisticated behavior change counseling techniques, a personal coach can help her discover her own personal motivation.

She may have been willing to take the test for an incentive. After receiving one-on-one support by a knowledgeable, compassionate coach, she is not only ready to improve her out-of-range biometric values, but she’s also likely excited about engaging in a healthier lifestyle. Together with her coach, she can form a vision she can turn to for inspiration in the face of even the toughest challenges.

Biometric testing can be a catalyst for change, but it is only the beginning. Personalized coaching can help a person find the intrinsic sources of motivation that support lifelong healthy behavior.

Anne Herman is a health coach with Alere Wellbeing, a provider of wellness coaching, smoking cessation and weight management programs.

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