How to choose a stress management program: 5 questions to ask

May 18, 2015

Is stress really an “epidemic”? Sadly, yes, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization, which recently declared that occupational stress has reached “epidemic” levels with costs estimated at upwards of $200 billion per year. If your business is affected by this “epidemic” like most others out there, then the majority of your employees are suffering from high levels of stress. Not only is this stress probably making them less happy than they could be, it’s costing your company money.  Lots of it.

How do highly stressed employees cost businesses money? To name just a few things…

It’s time to take action to help our employees

If you find these stats as scary as we do, and you are considering implementing a stress management program to promote greater wellbeing for your workers, we want to help you make the next step. If you’re unsure of the best way to choose a stress program, you are not alone. It’s complicated, and many of the programs out there sound exciting, but are not necessarily developed using the best of what stress science and evidence-based design has to offer.

Here is a handy list of questions to ask prospective vendors when evaluating stress reduction programs. Think of this as a starting point to help you evaluate your options.

1. How were your programs formulated? Are your programs built using proven methods?

If you want to help your employees, you don’t want to waste time experimenting with things that don’t work. Worryingly, some of the wellness programs out there are still operating on outdated or untested science. Some sound like great “common sense” ideas, but can’t point to any science showing why and how their programs will really work. You’ll want to determine this before choosing a vendor for your stress program.

2. Does the program rely on prizes, gift cards or cash to get people involved?

There are many great ways to incorporate prizes, goodies and small incentives into a wellness program to help boost participation and engagement. Sometimes a well-timed raffle or contest will help kickstart employee sign-ups for a new initiative, or re-awaken interest in a program where participation has fallen off in the middle.

However, if a wellness program relies heavily on cash and prize incentives to drive all or most interactions, it could be doing more harm to your employees than good. Studies have shown that the presence of external rewards can erode people’s internal desire to do something (such as exercise more or lose weight, two common goals of corporate wellness programs). This is called the “overjustification effect” and many programs unintentionally encourage it.

(To learn more about the overjustification effect, check out this PDF review of experiments that examined extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation.)

3. How exactly do you define “engagement” and “participation”?

Does the vendor have a good definition of these terms? How employee engagement and participation are defined can have a huge impact on how your program’s costs, ROI and overall success will be calculated. There are some vendors out there who define “engagement” as logging on to a website once a month. That’s hardly the level of interaction you’re probably looking for!

Make sure that you have realistic expectations for employee participation, and that you are on the same page as your wellness vendor when it comes to the meaning and value of “engagement”–before you begin.

4. How do you evaluate the impact of the program?

Related to the question of how to define engagement, it’s key to determine how success will be evaluated after the program is over. For something like a stress reduction program, we’ve found that short pre-program and post-program assessment surveys are extremely helpful in measuring the program’s impact on employee health and satisfaction. Along with your vendor, determine goals for employee stress levels and habits, and design pre- and post-program assessment questions to target these Ask your vendor how their stress management program in particular could address your top concerns and how they would suggest measuring progress.

5. What do we, as the employer, need to do to ensure the success of this program?

Some vendors may say, “You hardly need to do a thing!”

That might sound appealing at first, but it is a big red flag.

Transformative habit change in your employees will almost definitely require commitment from upper management, in the form of vocal support as well as time allocated to the program. A thoughtful vendor will understand this–and they’ll be eager to help you achieve it. (Luckily, there are many small changes that can be made in most workplaces to create a healthy and more calming environment while improving productivity and lowering stress.)

One last thing to remember…

One of the simplest ways to see what a wellness vendor of any kind is all about is to start by acknowledging openly that getting people to stick to new lifestyles or techniques is really hard! Then, simply ask the vendor, “How do you get employees there? What’s your company’s philosophy about this huge undertaking?”

The answer will be telling, and should help you evaluate whether they are truly up for the challenge.

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