Business of Well-being

Wellness Incentives and Gilligan's Island

What determines whether incentives work or fail?  This posting answers that question, which is as old as workplace wellness itself, in 550 words. Suppose your company offers to pay 100 employees to take 10,000 steps a day for the next 5 days. If you pay them enough, most will. Then, you'll stop paying them.

Some were already taking 10,000 steps/day before you started paying them. They'll keep on with it, happy to have collected a check from you for doing nothing. Of the others, maybe 2 or 3 will like walking enough to keep taking 10,000 steps/day on their own after the incentive period ends. And the rest? A week or even a day after you stop paying them, they'll plop back on their usual couches. Your incentive has failed.

Now suppose you offer to pay 100 employees to memorize the Gilligan's Island theme song and sing it. Most will do it. Here is the difference between singing that song and taking steps. You'll pay them once to sing it to you once. And yet a day, a week, or even a year later, most of them will still know it by heart.

They probably wouldn't be able to forget it if they tried. I bet you yourself won't be able to get it out of your head after reading this column. Your incentive has succeeded. What's the difference? In the first case, you were trying to pay people to change their own nature. That is doomed to failure.

A best-selling book, Drive, by Daniel Pink, has been written about what motivates people, and why wellness incentives don't work and often even backfire. In the second case, you were planting something in someone's brain. Most people love to learn things of interest to them, and you were giving them the opportunity. What does this have to do with wellness?  

Apply this same paradigm to wellness and health literacy. Go to and play the sample game. In four questions, you'll learn four fairly mind-blowing health literacy facts -- about granola bars, toothpaste, CT scans and heartburn pills -- that you almost certainly did not already know.

And yet knowing these facts will change your opinion about those four things, improve your health -- and possibly save both you and your employer money. After you learn them, ask yourself: will you ever forget them? If you pay your employees once to learn them, will it be like paying them to take steps in that they will forget these right away?

Or will it be like paying them to sing about Gilligan, the skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, in that they remember what they learned basically forever? Quizzify is just an example, and -- full disclosure -- I picked it because it's my company. The same thing would be true of any health literacy quiz where the material is innately interesting or of value.

One of the other issues cited in Drive is that incentives are addictive, so you can't drop your incentive program now that you've seen why incentives don't work. But perhaps by redirecting your incentive dollars to an activity that inherently lends itself to incentives, you will be able to spend your incentive budget more wisely and get more lasting results. And now it's time to sit right back and hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.

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