Most of us have heard the proverb, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." When it comes to wellness, often the first step is the most difficult of all. Sure, achieving our lofty health and fitness goals may sound nice, but these goals seem at least a thousand miles away at the beginning of a new wellness journey.
Let's face it- taking care of yourself can be a major challenge, especially if you've developed a lifetime of bad habits and have limited time and resources to make a change. Many of the world's most successful and innovative organizations are increasingly relying on health and wellness programs to gain a competitive advantage.
Since the widespread advent of employer sponsored health insurance in World War II, health care costs have negatively affected the bottom line of millions of corporations. Rising medical costs for U.S. employers continue to substantially surpass inflation rates, being elevated an average of 12 percent per year in the past decade.
This puts a huge financial strain on American employers. The statistics speak for themselves: in the United States, the average annual loss in productivity per worker due to sick days is $28,800. What's even more alarming is that many of these health care burdens are a result of conditions that are preventable.
Obese Americans spend approximately 36 percent more on healthcare costs and 77 percent more on medications than their healthy counterparts. Smokers on average run up $2,189 in annual worker's compensation costs, compared to $176 in non-smokers. Over 67 percent of Americans are not regularly active, and 25 percent aren't are not active at all.
The movement towards Corporate Wellness Programs attempts to reverse these trends by stressing a preventative approach that utilizes simple, common sense lifestyle adjustments that will ultimately leadless visits to the Doctor for our Nation's workers. At the crux of these programs is an attempt to in still personal responsibility in our workforce.
Common initiatives may include: free or reduced cost gym memberships, panels and workshops on healthy eating, complimentary smoking cessation programs and tracking tools that allow employees to take their wellness into their own hands. Healthier employees mean a whole host of positives for a company's bottom line: increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and bolstered employee retention to name a few.
But simply having a wellness program in place is not enough- it's crucial to keep employees engaged and motivated to ensure its success. How can we get employees to become active and engaged in a workplace wellness initiative? Enter gamification: the process of using game mechanics like competition, incentives and achievement to make a program more engaging.
As it applies to workplace wellness programs, gamification means utilizing aspects of "play" into the functionality and tracking of wellness initiatives. This means online tracking, competition between employees and groups of employees, simple and fun progress management tools like prizes, badges and quizzes, as well as incentives that play into a larger wellness strategy. How does this work?
Let's take TourDeFIT.com's Triple Threat Challenge for example. In this innovative health challenge, employees are given one healthy habit to adopt per week. This global wellness program allows employees and dependents to monitor their progress online, develop teams and rivalries for competition, and earn special wellness related incentives, all while accessing premium wellness content on their computers or mobile devices.
This "game-like" structure and atmosphere gives employees a new sense of engagement and personal responsibility over their progress. Gamification works because it makes wellness social. And social relationships play a huge role in our health. Studies have shown that an individual is 71 percent more likely to become obese if their friends are obese[2}
Similarly, if an employee is competing in a wellness challenge with a group of coworkers, he or she is provided with a built in-support system that will encourage sustained participation. This engagement level will go up if the employee's family also participates in the wellness initiative. Adds Carla McCormick, Vice President, Health Management Solutions with Fallon Benefits Group, "Gaming techniques make wellness fun and applicable to employees and their families. Many times what begins as a challenge or a game inspires individuals to adopt new lifestyles that can truly transform their health."
Although undoubtedly an individual pursuit, gamification allows us to utilize a group mindset when it comes to wellness. It turns passive users into active participants, breaking down large tasks into small, achievable goals with a clear framework to reach them. So although that first step may be the most difficult, the path is laid out for the employee, complete with a team of coworkers traversing the same trail and a sense of certainty about the final destination.
Gamification brings workplace wellness to the online and mobile arenas, putting the tools to manage their own success directly at the fingertips of increasingly tech-savvy employees while also allowing wellness programs to expand to national and even international initiatives. This increased reliance on digital technology in wellness program planning is a process of connecting with employees via the delivery system that they are already using every day: their computers and mobile phones.
As Bryce William, the Director of Wellvolution at Blue Shield of California said, "If you're not meeting people where they are, all you're doing is bringing horse-and-buggy solutions to a Maserati marketplace, and you won't succeed."
Gamification is a growing trend in corporate wellness, and many say that it's here to stay. A survey by the National Business Group on Health and Towers Watson found that 45 percent of companies surveyed used competitions as a key part of their wellness initiatives, with an additional 15 percent of companies planning to add competitions in 2013.
There was a similar increase in the percentage of companies planning to incorporate social media tools into their wellness programs: up from 12 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2012, with another 17 percent reporting that they are ready to add social media tools this year. 
And so although the benefits of workplace wellness programs have been widely recognized, we are learning that it's not enough just to offer wellness programming- you need to make it fun and engaging, giving your people the framework and tools to become healthier, happier and more productive.
About the Author
Winston Powell is the Director of West Coast Operations for TourDeFIT.com, "Your Online Fitness Concierge." His company plans and implements innovative Corporate Wellness Programs for offices of any size, nationwide. Winston is a 2009 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Contact him at WinstonPowell@TourDeFIT.com
To learn more about the Global Workplace Wellness Programming offered by TourDeFIT.com or to discuss how we can help you to utilize gamification as a part of your wellness efforts, please email cr@TourDeFIT.com.