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Wellness as seen by a wellness coach

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

We’ve posted many times on the subject of wellness as seen through the eyes of employees who have been harmed or just really annoyed. And Slate carried a number of comments from other employees, who said things along the lines of: “I’d like to punch them in the face.”  We also often write about employees who “out” vendors whose advice is truly bad.

Of course, we have also posted on the viewpoints of wellness promoters, our favorite lines coming from the very stable genius Michael O’Donnell, the former Prevaricator-in-Chief of the wellness trade association’s magazine, who contributed the following nuggets:

  • “Wellness is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, up there with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics.”
  • “[Wellness] can prevent 80% of all diseases.”
  • “Workplace health promotion may play a critical role in preserving civilization as we know it.”

This, on the other hand,  is the first time we’ve posted from the viewpoint of a wellness coach, Barb Ryan Tessari.

Here is her take:

I’ve had an upfront and personal vantage point, but I don’t get an opportunity to share much of what I have learned from the people that I have served. In the wellness industry, the goal is to be able to show a CFO hard dollar proof that the employer’s investment is working, mostly in the form of impersonalized analytical data. The intrinsic value of the work I do with the employees gets watered down to a tick in biometric screening improvements (which doesn’t always translate into an improvement in a population’s overall health) and a summary of what I did last year for their people in two paragraphs or less.

She adds:
I keep up with the trends in the wellness world, but I often don’t relate to the conversation. Sometimes I chuckle -sometimes I just scratch my head. Whether you call it wellness, wellbeing, engagement or whatever, not much of it touches on what I see as the reason people aren’t responding to change and what needs to happen to change it. I find that the strategies for change do not focus on what people need – in the real world. Human connection.

And this is why wellness can be such an epic fail:

Wellness strategies mostly focus on external factors to change behaviors. Of importance is the ability to capture tangible evidence and to automate the process so it is cost efficient and can be sold to large employers. The thing is, the external factors, the “hows and whats,” are the easy part. The reality is, for a large part of the population, the challenges in changing lifestyle behaviors stem mostly from internal factors. It’s the age-old problem of knowing what to do, but not being able to get yourself to do it. But it is so much more complicated than that.

A few observations about what makes it much more complicated and nuanced than wellness vendors would have us believe:

Day-to-day demands of life, technology and environmental influencers are constantly attacking even in absence of a major event going on in an employee’s life. The reality is, too many Americans are exhausted, distracted and their needs and wants for themselves come last. If, on top of everything else their work environment is stressful, unsupportive or they don’t feel important, it exacerbates their situations. There is no escape.

Hmm…So much for Wellsteps claim that employees “are suffering from I-don’t-care-itis.”  It’s just the opposite — employees care about too many things, so sometimes their own needs come last.  (As an aside, I always listen to my father’s stock market advice because in the stock market, the only person whose advice is as valuable as the person who is always right is the person who is always wrong.  So when planning your wellness strategy, listen to Wellsteps!.)

My personal favorite part of Barb’s blog is about sending employees to the doctor. Here are her observations, which closely mirror mine (meaning, of course, they are exactly the opposite of what most wellness vendors would have us believe):
  • ER and doctor visits often lead to expensive testing for chest pains, stomach issues, breathing problems or generalized aches and pains when the underlying cause is extreme stress/anxiety. I know their story. I know their stress. Many doctors don’t even ask the question.
  • Newly diagnosed diabetics (or pre-diabetics) are not sent to nutritional counseling, but instead the doctor prescribes metformin and merely instructs them to stop eating carbs.
  • Some doctors, whether intentionally or unintentionally “fat shame” their patients. I have heard the employees’ stories often, which delays care and certainly doesn’t empower a patient to make changes in self care
  • It seems many primary care doctors specialize in sending patients to specialists. And specialists don’t talk to each other. The focus seems to be to figure out what is wrong within the scope of their practice. There is little “connecting of the dots” to see if one problem could be connected to another. Patients are passed from one specialist to another and the employer and employee are paying the bill – not to mention the loss in productivity.

This is one of the reasons we frequently highlight Interactive Health in these postings — their whole business model is to brag about how many patients they send to the doctor for more tests for “newly discovered conditions.”

There is some good news in all of this — ways that coaches can make a difference and advice for companies currently throwing money away on mass screens and automating results, since one size does not fit all. I’ll let Barb finish telling you the stories.


  1. williammcpeck says:

    Three takeaways from Barbara’s post:
    1. She makes the case why employers should actually be focusing on wellness, rather than just health. Health does not equal wellness.
    2. She makes the case for why worksite wellness should focus on the organization just as much as it focuses on the individual employee. The two are inextricably linked and therefore cannot be separated.
    3. She makes the case for why much “health and wellness coaching” today is not really coaching at all but rather teaching. Coaching is meeting the client where they are at, not simply pushing your own agenda.


  2. […] Michael O’Donnell, former prevaricator-in-chief of the wellness industry trade magazine and best known proposing that employees be charged for insurance by the pound, once claimed that “pry, poke and prod” programs were as important to public health as an…. […]


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