Generally speaking, competition can be a very powerful motivator. Based on this well-documented concept, many employee wellness incentive program ideas are designed specifically to cultivate a sense of competition among participants in an organization. Unfortunately, these efforts sometimes backfire. So what should HR managers know when planning employee wellness programs? How can you build a healthy competition that benefits both the employees and the organization as a whole?
Health Promotion vs. Disease Prevention
Before looking at specific aspects of the various employee wellness incentive program ideas that have been used, it's important to consider the two broad categories that these programs fall under: health promotion and disease prevention. Of course, these two goals often overlap. Still, this is a good place to start when deciding which type of wellness program would be best for your organization.
As the name suggests, health promotion programs will deal with specific health metrics like weight, cardiovascular health, steps taken or other factors. Typically, programs that focus on health promotion will include things like weight loss competitions or walking challenges. For example, in 2012 the Kroger Company started holding annual 10-week long walking challenges. During these events, participants wear pedometers that track the number of steps taken on a daily basis. In that first year, over 32,000 employees participated in the challenge, logging a total of 3.7 million steps and dropping 57,500 pounds in total.
Disease prevention programs, however, are a little more subtle. Since the focus here is prevention, this type of wellness effort generally lacks the dramatic changes seen in health promotion programs and cannot usually be turned into a competition. Instead, disease prevention programs generally utilize things like education and health screenings to help employees have more control over their overall well-being. This could involve providing access to free or lost-cost vaccines, physicals or other wellness services.
When it comes to health promotion vs. disease prevention, the reality is that each of these categories offers unique benefits and should be used together for the greatest benefit.
As you sift through employee wellness incentive program ideas, there are a few potential problems that should be avoided. According to a 2014 report on the successes and failures of these programs in The New York Times, the primary issue is that of alienation. Consider, for example, the classic weight loss competition. Often, this is the go-to event for organizations experimenting with wellness programs.
What if some of your employees struggle with maintaining a healthy body image, though? Others may face conditions that make it much more challenging for them to control their weight. In each of these situations, a weight loss competition could put these individuals under undue stress, decrease their morale and even inadvertently encourage them to make risky health decisions. This same principle can be expanded and applied to a variety of health and wellness competitions.
So, what can you do to avoid this problem? First, make it clear that participation in these programs is strictly voluntary. Employee wellness efforts that punish individuals who decide not to participate tend to lower morale, create social divisions among the employees and increase feelings of stress. Then, understand that not everyone will get involved. While the Kroger walking challenge saw some great success, the truth is that only about 10 percent of the company's employees signed up.
Rather than thinking in terms of specific events, your goal should be to create an overall environment of well-being that provides employees with the necessary resources to improve their own health. Even if someone decides not to participate in a specific event held at the office, they might make use of discount access to a local gym.
When designing workplace wellness programs, it's vital to use competition sparingly and avoiding alienating employees or making them feel pressured to make imbalanced health decisions.