Business of Well-being

Wellness Rewards: How Much is Too Much?

The first thing an HR executive or CEO should know is that (Warning: this may be shocking) wellness rewards are not necessary to engage employees in a corporate wellness program. It's easy to see why most worksite wellness programs aren't successful biometrics, assessments, and coaching are time-consuming and boring.  

But even more importantly, they don't drive daily habit and lifestyle improvement. In and of themselves, they're not a wellness "program" - they're just health-measurement activities and interventions designed to identify those "at risk" - and they often require a heavy incentive to get people to participate.  

The only real way to drive engagement - big-time engagement - is to create a program that people care about and want to take part in. A program that's more fun if others are doing it too, so people are compelled to recruit others to take part. It has to be simple so that everyone (even the least tech savvy of us) can use it, but not simplistic so that people won't become bored in a few short weeks and most importantly, it has to truly drive health-habit improvement with metrics to prove it.

Leaning on cash wellness rewards for completing one-time health-measurement activities as described above, ignores the opportunity for creating sustainable lifestyle change, and the opportunity to achieve a more productive, happier, and less-absent workforce. The initial promise of wellness rewards are nearly guaranteed to create a short-term surge in participation.

But at what long-term cost? It doesn't create sustainable lifestyle changes or self-perpetuated habits. And once someone's paid to complete an activity once - you better believe they'll expect to be paid to complete it again. So, the employer ends up rewarding the same action over and over - with increased rewards required each time, but no actual health improvements to show for it.  

From an ROI standpoint, these types of wellness rewards leads to way more going out than coming in. Before implementing a new wellness program (or continuing with the same old stuff), it's important to determine what will motivate your employees. In general, there are six main ways people can be motivated to change their habits:

  • Progress toward an end-goal: Employees want to know that they're working toward an eventual end-goal. Having a "point B" in sight gives an employee the ability to gauge their progress as they continue to participate in healthy activities (further feeding long-term engagement).
  • Connection with others: Our desire to belong to a group doesn't simply disappear after high school. The power of sociality within the corporate environment is evident in the success of wellness programs that focus on company-wide, team-based challenges, company fitness goals, and interactive company dashboards that encourage positive peer pressure. And social recognition outweighs any remunerative reward we've seen.
  • The ability to "do it my way":  Even the most team-oriented person has a slight bias toward doing things in a way that makes them comfortable. Giving employees the option to choose a relevant path provides a sense of responsibility and accountability for changing their health habits.
  • A higher purpose for completing an activity: Connecting an activity to a higher purpose - such as a philanthropic contribution - provides employees with an added boost of enthusiasm for reaching a goal. Companies like Calorie Cloud are taking advantage of this by using employees' burned calories (during a specified period of time, as tracked by their activity-tracking device), and applying them to a charitable contribution to end hunger in third-world countries.

    Organizations that have committed to this unique approach have seen a huge boost in participation among employees. Your employees establish healthier habits, the company earns a more productive, happier, and more energetic workforce, and everyone's helping to save lives in the process. It's a win-win-win.
  • Fun: Whichever program you implement, don't forget about keeping it fun! Giving employees an opportunity to enjoy themselves while getting healthier is often reward enough.
  • The "what's in it for me?" factor: This is probably the most obvious of all motivators. It's inevitable that employees will look for something to be gained from each activity. After all, if they really wanted to get healthier on their own, they would've done it already - without the promise of a reward!

Now that we understand what generally motivates employees, which method would you choose to focus on? Again, this will depend on your unique company culture and what you hope to get from your wellness program. Are you trying to help employees improve their daily health habits?

Or do you simply want to see a certain number of people complete a health questionnaire by a certain date? By giving employees a goal, connecting them with their peers, giving them different options and relevant reasons to participate, and making it all fun in the process, the final reward (if any) will seem like an added bonus to what's already been gained by simply completing the healthy action.So, let's talk wellness rewards.  

Lots of wellness vendors are using activity-tracking devices as a way to entice employees to participate (i.e., get a biometric screening, attend a wellness fair, or participate in a wellness challenge to earn a free activity-tracking device). There are two main issues with this approach:

  • Employees who simply don't feel like doing the required "gateway" activity will be left out - and not just for this round of competition. If they never "earn" their device, they'll be left out of future activities and competitions as well!
  • There's no real "skin in the game" for employees. They'll sign up, show up, or fill out an assessment just to get their free device, and their participation will end there robbing the employee of the chance to actually improve his or her health habits.

Instead of handing out devices to coax participation in undesirable health activities, you should position wearable activity trackers as a tool to drive the overall wellness program's success. The promise of an "earned" device may increase participation for a short while but often the device will be used for a few weeks (or months at best) and then be forgotten about in a sock drawer with the rest of their once-hot gadgets.

A better approach would be to subsidize a portion of the purchase price, having employees make an investment in their health by covering the remaining balance of the device price. If you (the employer) prefer to cover the entire cost, another option is to have employees pay an initial co-pay that can be earned back by hitting a long-term activity goal.

That way, employees will be sure to use the device - resulting in enduring engagement and the creation of life-long healthy habits that give you a healthier, more productive workforce. And all will be done without breaking the bank with unnecessary incentives.

About the Author

Danna Korn is Co-founder and CEO (Chief Energizing Officer!) of Sonic Boom Wellness - a software company specializing in fun, innovative corporate wellness programs that improve employees' daily health habits. In her "other life," Danna Korn is a motivational speaker and best-selling author known as the "Gluten-Free Guru" since 2007.

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