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Dee Edington and Jennifer Pitts Write the Book I Would Write If I Had Manners

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The second-most frequent question I get (after: ”Why are you such a jerk?”) is: “OK, you’ve convinced me that ‘pry, poke, prod, and punish’ doesn’t work. What should we do instead?”

While Quizzify is one answer to that question, my ex-wife was quite clear that it is not always about me, so when a really good philosophy of what-to-do-instead becomes available, I make sure that others know about it.  (For example, How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, by Jon Robison and Rosie Ward.)   Dee Edington and Jennifer Pitts have also come through with a book of great scope and outstanding insights called Shared Values—Shared Results: Positive Organizational Health As a Win-Win Philosophy.  Stylistically very different from Surviving Workplace Wellness, Shared Values-Shared Results reaches the same conclusion: it’s not easy, and perhaps impossible, to maximize the output of your workforce and organization in general, and you certainly can’t do it with simplistic ‘pry, poke and prod’ programs alone.

Instead, Edington and Pitts make what should be―but is apparently not given the current state of the wellness industry―a self-evident statement that poor health is a complex problem. By contrast, the implicit assumption underlying wellness programs is that employees with health risks and diseases will be motivated to manage those risks and conditions once those conditions are identified (and the employees bribed), and that they will love you and love your company for it. This book, completely correctly, espouses an alternative viewpoint.

Another way of putting it: What Edington and Pitts call “tame problems” can be easily solved once identified. Example: someone tells you your shoe is untied. Other problems―such as poor health―they describe as “wicked.” Wicked problems are “influenced by many factors” and require “highly creative solutions.”

Or, as HL Mencken put it: “For every problem, no matter how complex, that is a simple and understandable solution…and it’s almost always wrong.” (Are you listening, Donald Trump?)

And therein lies the difference between wellness vendors and Edington/Pitts. The former refuses to recognize that “behavior change” based on “risk factors” is a facile, misguided, and counterproductive attempt to achieve the latter. The best example is Total Wellness, the quintessential example of a vendor believing that you can achieve a culture of health by screening the stuffing out of your employees.

Edington and Pitts don’t just take the opposite approach. What makes this book a must-read is its “how-to” quality: they go on to describe the Five Pillars that can make this happen. I found the most critical to be Pillar Two, on workplace stress. Vendors market stress management programs, which reminds me of the North Carolina senator who—when India experienced a famine in the mid-1960s—proposed sending them tobacco, to “ease the stress of starvation.” By contrast, Edington and Pitts argue that stress management should be built in, not added on.

And yet the work needs to get done, and sometimes getting the work done can be stressful. Quizzify, for example, recognizes this, and our policy tries to balance stress and output. Weekend emails are allowed ―but only those requesting short answers, like “How do I access this document you wrote?” as opposed to “Can you write this document?” Staff is advised to expect that 3-4 weekends a year will involve fire drills…but during the 10 holiday weekends a year, emails are shut down. Even during those long weekends, upward communications are allowed because sometimes it’s raining, meaning maybe an engineer or designer is home…and wants to code or design. Stress would be created if supervisors didn’t respond to short-answer questions during those periods. The coder or designer might want some brief feedback or have a question. Different people have different work habits, and Quizzify’s weekend workflow policy tries to allow people to work according to their own habits while not imposing them on others.

See? As the book describes, creating a culture that gets the work done while avoiding undue stress is not simple, and not every company would solve it the same way. That’s why a great deal of Shared Values describes the process―or “journey” as they call it―to getting to the cultural ideal, and that’s why a great deal of their prescription involves listening to employees.

The most important line in the book about the failure of a culture-of-heath to “take” is a bit buried so it’s worth noting separately: “Many ‘culture of health’ efforts today are focused on strengthening or increasing the scale and scope of wellness,” and as a result the “responsibility for creating this culture of health falls to the wellness, human resources or medical director.” In combination, these two sentences describe exactly why these cultures don’t “take.” Indeed, the entire book is about the importance of doing the opposite: starting with the C-Suite ensures that much if not most of the company will buy into a culture of health. Making it another “program” does the opposite.

Of course there are some places where we disagree. I think the book gives vendored “pry, poke and prod” programs a free pass and suggests that they may be part of the solution, instead of calling them out as the enemy of a cultural shift. (The aforementioned Total Wellness is the poster child for this conflation.)  Likewise, benefits consultants, attempting to quantify everything and often — as in Mercer and Staywell — appearing to represent the vendors, should be called to task as well. They don’t make money in a culture of health. They make money by bringing in vendors with complex RFPs, and then evaluating their outcomes. Their worst nightmare would be companies following the advice in Shared Values.

It is brilliant how the authors peeled the onion, layer by layer, to get to the core issues of individual and organizational engagement and health. First, the secret sauce is to keep the employees and the organization involved and thus creative and engaged. Engagement begins with recognizing health as a complex issue by collaboratively creating sharing values and outlining desired results―then packaging them into a shared vision. Systems and designed thinking are needed from all stakeholders to plot the course for the merger of positive individual and organizational health.

This book provides rich information about what both individuals and organizations can do to move from current and best practices to emerging next practices. These strategies help evolve the culture and population in healthy direction. The final section of the book provides a compelling case for more meaningful and engaging (and they mean “engaging” quite literally) evaluation measures and methods. Engage everyone in outlining what outcomes truly matter, involve them in collecting rich information and communicating about successes and opportunities for improvement. Finally, include them in creating grassroots and native approaches to help support thriving employees and organizations. The authors emphasize that this level of engagement is at the heart of a win-win philosophy.


6 Comments

  1. Tom Emerick says:

    I can’t wait to see their new book.

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  2. Dee Edington says:

    Al and Tom thanks for the review and comment. Jennifer and I are looking forward to finding the positive side of health, which we label as wellness. If the wellness and well-being programs shift to a focus on the benefit to employees and somewhat decrease the emphasis on the benefit to employers, the win-win philosophy will be achieved.

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  3. Anonymous HR says:

    Sounds like a great book but what caught my eye was this weekend email policy. Is it in the book? Is ther more to it than this? How is it working? Can you write it up separately? Can we ask you followup questions?

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    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      When real reviewers (like New York Review of Books etc.) write reviews, they are often asked to review specifically because of their expertise in the subject matter, and sprinkle in their own experiences. This Quizzify weekend email policy is an example of the latter. It fit very well in the context of the review. And, yes, you can write separately to ask other questions.

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  4. Leo Tolstoy says:

    Regarding the book’s treatment of 4P programs and associated vendors, I think this is attributable to the authors’ ability to see these things in the broader context of an evolving and still relatively immature industry. There is a beautiful summary of that broader context and history provided very early in the book, explaining how the industry errantly embraced the medical model and how/why we’re now working to transcend it. You might say Dee and Jennifer are applying ‘Systems Thinking’ to our industry in the same manner that they advocate employers apply it to the wicked problem of workplace well-being. The flawed wellness practices of today are merely symptoms of a larger disease, and as painfully annoying as those symptoms can be, we shouldn’t confuse them for the disease itself.

    If we define the disease as flawed thinking, Rosie & Jon contributed significantly to the cure around this time last year, and Dee & Jennifer have now advanced the practical application of ‘new paradigm’ wellness even further. This follows the important work you did to widely expose just how problematic things had become. 4P programs and vendors are absolutely slowing the progress of change, but in the context of history and the larger evolving system, they are far more insignificant than they may now appear. Those who cling to the status quo will be buried with it in time, and that time draws ever closer.

    Overall, excellent review on an extremely important book.

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    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Thanks for the review of the review and glad to see your “name” pop up in our comments list again. This is also proving to be a very popular posting (more popular than any posting not involving Ron Goetzel), so hopefully people will see your take on the book and also get the book for themselves.

      Like

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