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Wellness Programs: You’re Throwing Money Away If You Only Focus On Engagement

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Chris Cutter

Nearly 80 percent of employers offer some form of wellness program, according to a 2015 Business Wire survey. And for good reason: An effective program provides a slew of benefits, from increased employee productivity and morale to a better healthcare bottom line.

But with so much conflicting information surrounding employee wellness programs, it’s easy to implement a program that doesn’t address the health issues you’re passionate about or generate the ROI your business needs.

Unfortunately, this is a growing problem in the corporate world. As wellness spending skyrockets, employers are beginning to ask whether all of that money is delivering the results they’re looking for. And as business leaders search for an answer, one thing has become clear: A wellness program that isn’t rooted in long-term behavioral change won’t deliver the results you want.

Engagement is only the beginning


More companies are starting to realize that change in health behavior is the real measure of success when it comes to corporate wellness. But for many years, the industry wasn’t exposed to evidence-based practice. Rather, programs often used the engagement rate as the sole measure of success.

Wellness programs would provide incentives — e.g., cash, gift cards or other rewards for completing a survey, visiting a gym a certain number of times or, more recently, taking a certain number of steps in a day — all in the hopes of jump-starting employee involvement. But while these incentives engage employees initially, their primary motivation was ultimately the tangible reward, not the long-term health benefits.

That’s because extrinsic motivators like cash only get people to start. Intrinsic motivation is what leads to actual long-term health behavior change. The mark of an effective wellness program is its ability to inspire employees to embrace healthy lifestyles for authentic, internal reasons.

According to the American Heart Association, a big part of this means developing a culture of health in which employee health is carefully evaluated. But I’d argue that simply assigning a numerical value to your employees’ well-being won’t instigate behavior change. You have to leverage the numbers to help your employees make the personal decision to change — give them the tools, but let them sit in the driver’s seat.

In a recent Brigham Young University study, participants partook in an accountability-based wellness program. First, their lifestyle choices were assessed and rated on a scale from one to 100, with 100 being the healthiest. But the wellness coach didn’t set goals for participants based on their numbers or give out cash for visiting the gym. Rather, he engaged participants in determining for themselves what wellness goals they were willing and ready to commit to.

As a result, participants who were at high risk for cancer improved their heath by roughly 41 percent. And those with uncontrolled diabetes decreased their blood glucose levels by 58 percent. Intrinsic motivation — in other words, simply choosing to make a long-lasting change for their own reasons — propelled these participants further than gift cards ever could.

Refocus your wellness program for real results


If you suspect that your wellness program isn’t producing the results you were hoping for, you need to take a hard look at your existing program. What proof do you have that employees aren’t just going through the motions but are making long-term health habit changes? If your internal wellness team or outside vendors are still only focused on your participation rate, it may be time to strategize how to become more focused on behavior change.

To take your wellness program beyond engagement to behavior change, we recommend starting with these six steps:


  1. Establish your goals. Bring together a small team to work on setting your company’s health and wellness behavior change goals. Make sure those goals are reasonable, measurable, and achievable over both the short and long term. If you can’t help someone discover personal reasons to care about his own health, your chances of success are slim.

  2. Look at your current approach. It may be that some aspects of your current programs work well, while other pieces fall short. Sort through the good and bad to determine what stays and what goes. Then, circulate a brief survey that tests employees’ knowledge of health issues, their levels of motivation, their personal goals, and their current levels of success.

  3. Find a new plan. This may mean creating your own or partnering with a reputable vendor. Above all, it should be personalized to the motivations, lifestyles, and goals that your employees mentioned in their surveys. One-size-fits-all programs won’t cut it any longer, so don’t focus exclusively on one common activity that everyone is expected to do together. Instead, create choices based on where employee interests lie.

  4. Evaluate. After the program has been in place for several months, have participants take a post-program survey to see whether their knowledge, motivation, and, most importantly, behavior have changed since they began. Ideally, you would also measure whether their improvements are still there at six, 12, or even 18 months after the wellness program is complete.

  5. Share your results. Share your aggregated data with your leadership team. Take care not to share individual employees’ data.

  6. Go for the hard ROI. When it comes time to determine whether you’ve achieved a good return on your wellness program, capture information on things like sick leave, turnover, absenteeism, and healthcare claims. If there have been tangible changes in behavior, you’ve hit a home run.

Engagement is no doubt a part of any corporate wellness program, but it’s important to remember that you can’t measure the success of your program on that alone. Long-term behavior change is the next step beyond engagement, and in order for you to get the hard ROI you need, you’ll have to create a program that inspires your employees to take charge of their health.

Image credit: Flickr/Penn State

Chris Cutter is the founder and CEO of LifeDojo. LifeDojo’s evidence-based 12-week wellness programs lead employees through a journey of motivation, daily action, and support, resulting in permanent health behavior change.

3p Contributor

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