by Mike Critelli
I learned on Thursday, June 23, 2022, that Dee Edington, the Director of the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center, died on June 22, 2022 at age 84. His impact is not adequately capturable in a recounting of his credentials, his accomplishments or even the words he committed to paper in his many publications.
Dee believed that optimal health in all its dimensions was achievable and particularly understood that achieving health and wellbeing in any population was never primarily about healthcare or affordable health insurance. He focused on employers because he recognized that they have the greatest economic and business interest in the health and wellbeing of their employees.
So many of the insights he described in his seminal 2000 book Zero Trends: Health As An Economic Strategy seem very obvious, but have taken far too long to take hold:
A healthy employee population is necessary to achieve a high performance work culture;
Employers can enable health, while lowering the burden of healthcare costs on their business, which is why the use of the word “zero” in the title of his 2000 book conveyed the message that investments in health produce a compelling economic return;
Health management is not achieved primarily by driving individual behavior change; it is only achievable through a systematic effort to create a culture of health in an organization and the communities in which its employees live.
The organization’s CEO is more important for the health of his or her employees than the medical director, the benefits director, the insurance company, the wellness program leader, or the health benefits consultant. A culture of health starts with and is driven by the top, and is reinforced by peer-to-peer support in an organization.
Success in embedding healthy habits in any population, particularly a workforce, requires those seeking to induce behavior change to slow down in order to speed up the achievement of results;
Successful habit changes require individuals to feel like “winners” for making small, steady progress; and
Success comes from building a healthy work and cultural environment, in which people care for one another, as opposed to one in which outcomes-based rewards discriminate in favor of those with an easier path to achieving results.
In an October 28, 2013, article in Employee Benefit News, Dee stood apart from a consensus favoring employee wellness incentive programs that rewarded success, as opposed to participation. He believed that employers were trying to achieve results with quick, non-sustainable fixes, rather than taking the slower, but sustainable path, to creating a culture of health in an organization. This sensible contrarian position, grounded much more in the reality of institutional and individual behavior change, is what set Dee apart from the large population of wellness gurus who never realized the success that those who followed Dee’s guidance achieved.
Dee quietly and thoughtfully mentored individuals, including me, and hosted conferences to bring tens of thousands of executives, managers and professionals together in Ann Arbor to shape the way individuals and organizations thought and acted about health promotion. Everyone who knew him was profoundly influenced by his thinking and example.
Many who never met or may never have known about him also benefited from the ripple effect of the guidance he provided.
I believe that his impact will be felt and appreciated several generations beyond his lifetime. Those of us who worked and consulted with him must honor his legacy by continuing to carry his messages forward.