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Change is Hard

September 23, 2014

BALTIMORE — It seems weird (hypocritical?) to write about wellness from a trade show booth, but when you’re surrounded by vendors fighting to become the next big thing (with apologies to Samsung) its impossible to ignore.

I guess I got washed away this week by the rising wave of wellness crashing down on the benefits business. Well, that and the open bar…

At any rate, all attendees could talk about this week on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., was the new iPhone, the flickering exhibit hall lights and wellness.

I even had dinner last night with someone you might even call a wellness icon, a fitness guru who’s been on most of the morning talk shows. I swear at least half the exhibitors at this show were plugging wellness software, wellness gadgets or full-on wellness equipment. There were even a few wellness “miracles” sprinkled throughout the hall, ripped straight out of late-night TV.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in employers and employees alike taking a more active role when it comes to wellness. But as I’ve pointed out before, it’s hard to champion something so ill-defined and vague that no one knows if it’s working or not. Just ask the disillusioned CFO who’s still waiting for some kind of ROI for all these dollars he’s been throwing down the wellness money pit.

Change is hard.

It’s taken the better part of a decade, but employers are finally showing signs of committing to real change when it comes to how health care is funded. Asking their employees to actually help with the heavy lifting is certainty reasonable enough, but I fear employees lack the context the rest of us have. Imagine your kids being picked up and moved halfway across the country because of your new job. Sure, you and your spouse have been talking about it for months. Doesn’t make it any easier for them.

And, as one broker told me, the real problem with wellness is that — for all its bells and whistles — its ultimate success (as well your client’s happiness) hinges on one single thing: changing human behavior. Which is harder than passing a bill on Capitol Hill these days.

Change is hard.

Employees aren’t the only ones resisting change. I think a lot of brokers are still unwilling to change either how they do business or get paid to the degree the new environment will eventually require. I worry brokers still want someone else to fix everything for them…and to do it for free. Or at least without cutting into their commission. Which is a pretty short-sighted, if not self-destructive, way of doing business. Sure, voluntary’s a huge part of our future, but what happens when the feds slap the MLR clamp down on voluntary commissions, too?

Change is hard.

But, if this trade show is any indication, I think employers are willing to give this wellness thing a second chance. They outnumber the brokers here probably two-to-one, and they’re desperate for help. But the goals need to be clear, and quantifiable. And brokers have a wealth of eager partners more than willing to help put together some outdside-the-box solutions. Now if only brokers would get out of the damn box.