Leveling Up Your Corporate Wellness Program: Utilizing Gamification to Make Wellness Fun and Engaging

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More and more organizations are using game mechanics to engage employees and drive behavior change in areas across the organization.  The analyst firm Gartner predicts that, by 2014, about 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application; and for good reasons.  


Game mechanics help break down large tasks into small, achievable, short-term goals and reward achievement.  They convert passive users into active "players" - that is, they drive employee engagement and participation.  They have a subtle power to turn actions into habits.  


Plus, they can create a unifying experience around an unfamiliar and often changing array of tasks. But what do game mechanics have to do with health? As it turns out, plenty! Game mechanics are a proven, effective strategy for higher employee participation and completion in technology-based Wellness 2.0 programs.  


These game-based strategies not only drive engagement in programs, they provide the bridge to the all-important offline healthy behaviors and can reinforce behaviors across programs.  Game mechanics motivate employees to make the healthy choices that help organizations improve workforce health and gain control over skyrocketing healthcare costs.

The Gamification of Health/Wellness Programs: A Means to an End

Before your organization sets out to incorporate game mechanics into your employee health strategy, it's important to first do some thinking. Keep in mind that "gamifying health" isn't the end goal, but merely one strategy for creating a healthier workforce.


Game mechanics help your employees easily learn how they can participate in your programs, what they need to do to make healthy behavior changes and better understand their progress against goals. And just like in real life, not all games are created equally. Good games are well designed. They're interesting and engaging.


They're built with the needs and desires of their audiences in mind. They provide the triggers that reinforce the behaviors you seek to drive. If properly designed, they offer opportunities to leverage social connections with peers to enhance the game and your outcomes.

Game On: Quick Tips to Consider

So, how do you apply game mechanics to your employee wellness initiatives that will successfully turn your employees from passive users into active players?Consider these quick tips:

  • Keep it simple, easy and achievable - Points, levels and rewards help drive engagement and ongoing employee participation and healthy behaviors.  Having a common set of game mechanics across programs makes it easier to understand what to do, cross-promote programs and have a higher impact.
  • Employ regular challenges and competition - Ongoing competition and healthy challenges provide opportunities to keep employees motivated towards good health.  They also offer important points in time for employees to connect socially with their peers and cheer one another on the path to good health.
  • Make it easy to track and monitor progress - Traditional Wellness 1.0 programs were manual-based and put the burden on employees to track their progress and for HR to monitor overall success of the initiative.  But with today's wellness technologies (coupled with effective game mechanics) turn tracking/monitoring progress into an easy and validated online process.
  • Make it social - Provide ways for employees to connect socially to share scores, talk about leader-boards, exchange tips/tricks, and to brag about their success.
  • Get C-level buy in - The most successful employee health initiatives enjoy strong, visible support from the top.  If you're struggling to get senior executives in the game, conduct your own challenge (among departments, locations, etc.) and share data about participation (average activity levels prior to challenge, during challenge and after challenge).  These numbers may be enough to make believers of even the most skeptical management team.
  • Capture data to gauge your game's efficacy - Organizations need strong reporting capabilities to understand the impact of the employee health effort.  With reporting tools, companies can use the data from their health games and nimbly adjust/adapt the game to changing needs to drive ongoing results.

Successful Health Gaming in Action

Let's look at a couple of examples of successful health gaming in action.  At Ochsner Health System, a large Louisiana-based healthcare system with seven hospitals and 35 clinics, more than 85 percent of the company's 10,000 benefits eligible employees are playing an employee health game.  


Of those employees participating, more than 50 percent earned enough points to achieve Level 3 in the game and received a substantial health insurance premium discount for 2010.  Ochsner's internal studies are showing actual cost savings from this approach.  


In 2010, Ochsner held the growth in its cost of healthcare to nearly one-third the national average. Another example is Columbus, Indiana-based Cummins Inc., a corporation of complementary business units that design, manufacture, distribute and service engines, as well as related technologies.  


Cummins began incorporating a game component into its wellness program in 2011.  This summer, Cummins held its first companywide competition, called the Champions' Challenge. All employees participating in its employee wellness program were invited to join the challenge and earn activity points.


For every 500 activity points accrued, one entry into a random prize drawing was earned. So far, Cummins reports the challenges and gaming aspects have received a very positive response. There has been a large number of people engaged in at least one challenge since they enrolled (roughly 73 percent of the company's eligible U.S. population is enrolled in its wellness program).

Social and Mobile Technologies: Supporting the Success of Health Gaming

Two other technologies that can drive greater success of your health gaming strategy are social networking and mobile applications. Social relationships and culture play a tremendous role in our health.  Science shows an individual is 71 percent more likely to become obese if their friends are obese.  


As mentioned earlier, health gaming and social activity are a complementary pairing.  The power of peer-to-peer motivation and support can motivate employees to engage in the employee health effort - and stay in the game for the long term.


Mobile apps are also important because they provide employees with greater freedom to participate whenever and wherever they happen to be.  Apps today can help to track physical activity or nutrition, and employees can even engage each other using handheld devices.


The freedom to record and monitor biometric and activity progress, get support from peers, and get real-time updates on game standings which provides instant motivation.

Workplace Wellness: Let the Games Begin!

Game mechanics are proving to be one of the most winning strategies companies can tap to boost employee health and productivity.  Game mechanics offer a short-term reinforcement cycle and are a great way to keep employee health momentum going over the long term.  


But when thinking about adding game mechanics to your employee health initiatives, keep simplicity in mind so your employees can easily understand what they need to do to succeed on the path to good health.  People become easily frustrated with conflicting, complex rules, so boil health gaming down to short steps and reinforcement cycles.


By achieving small tasks, employees can achieve a level of confidence that keeps them moving into higher levels of the game. Remember, too, that getting employees to play the game isn't the end goal.  One strategy could help you create a workplace culture of health and drive sustained offline behavior shifts.  


Employee engagement and/or retention is a challenge for employers today.  If you want to attract and keep the best talent, it helps if your employees are having fun and are engaged. Games can help immensely in achieving both of those goals.

About The Author

Tom Abshire is the Senior Vice President for Products, Marketing and Member Engagement at Virgin HealthMiles.  The company provides programs and technologies that engage your workforce in good health.  Over 130 industry leaders representing more than 700,000 employees across the U.S. have selected Virgin HealthMiles' award-winning programs for their employees.  For more information, visit www.virginhealthmiles.com.