5 Reasons Your Corporate Wellness Program Will Fail in 2016 (If Nothing Changes)

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Feb 15, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

More and more employers are implementing corporate wellness initiatives with lofty goals in mind.

They set out to create healthier, happier populations and increase workforce productivity – all while lowering per-employee health care costs and saving gobs of money.

While it starts out with the best of intentions, it can sometimes end with lackluster results – with budgets wasted on excessive incentives, little-to-no engagement after the first few months, and zero positive impact on employee morale, culture, productivity, and everything else we desire to gain from our wellness efforts.

So, is wellness hopeless?

Not at all. But here are five (5) main reasons why it will fail for some in 2016  — and how to avoid becoming one of those corporate-wellness casualties:

1. The games aren’t really games.

Gamification” is so 2010.

Lots of companies tried to gamify wellness, said their “oohs” and “ahhs,” and then quit innovating. But the “games” aren’t really games – they’re typically just simple challenges, usually with a “get more XXX and you win” approach. There’s no strategy, no loss-aversion – no true gaming mechanics.

One-dimensional, steps-based contests may promote short-term participation for a subset of the population, but no one wants to do the same contest over and over again, nor does one contest suit everyone.

If I’m a marathon runner, I don’t care about a “walking challenge.” If I haven’t worked up a sweat in 15 years, I’m not going to join a running or steps-based contest. They have to be relevant and personalized, and you have to mix it up.  People get tired of the same-old, same-old challenges.

Solution: Make the games more interesting and SOCIAL. Implement an easy-to-use platform that includes a multitude of games and other interactive, engagement-driven wellness tools – building social contagion through competition, cooperation, camaraderie, and friendly rivalry.

The focus should remain on actual long-term habit improvement instead of short-term activity completion – promoting continued participation in future contests and challenges. That does NOT mean longer contests! In fact, any challenge that lasts longer than four weeks is likely to lose engagement.

2. They’re too focused on incentives

A common complaint in the wellness industry is that employees dive in, do what it takes to get their goodies, and then they’re out. That’s not improving long-term health habits!

If your goal as an employer is to truly achieve health-habit improvement (and the cost savings that come with it) it’s imperative to rethink the emphasis that your program places on incentives – especially if it’s focusing too heavily on cash incentives (and/or coercive punishments, such as premium penalties or dropped coverage).

Solution: Fix the root of the problem by improving the actual wellness program. Make it more inclusive, more engaging, and more encouraging of actual health-habit improvement, so that people are engaging for reasons other than the incentives.

Make it socially interactive and fun to participate in so that rewards become an ancillary “bonus” instead of a necessity to force utilization and conformity. Improving long-term health habits will lead to the health improvements (and medical-cost savings) companies so desperately seek.

Solution #2: Be creative. If and when rewards are used, give your people some credit – not everyone’s driven solely by monetary inducements. And you better believe that those who “earn” a cash prize for completing a one-time activity (e.g., health assessment or biometric screening) will expect an even larger cash prize the next time you ask them to complete the same task.

How’s this cycle sustainable? It’s not. Focus instead on recognition-based rewards (e.g., trophies, certificates), experiential rewards (e.g., vouchers for kayaking, theme-park tickets, rock-climbing lessons), and rewards tied to philanthropic efforts that contribute to a greater good (e.g., donations made on behalf of winners, running a 5K that supports a cause, picking up litter on the roadside). And, with this approach, punishments for non-conformity become pointless – saving already-overburdened wellness admins from having to put on that dreaded bad-guy hat.

3. Over-rewarding of the already-healthy

Lots of programs claim to be customizable and personalized, but not many truly are. And, since most contests are based on the same ol’ things (steps!), and most incentive plans are based on healthy outcomes (BMI < 25), the already-healthy tend to rise to the top and win every competition (and “earn” most incentives without making any real effort) – discouraging the average Joe and Jane, for whom the program is exponentially more important, from playing along in future contests.

Simple steps-based contests are becoming old news, as they don’t facilitate massive engagement, cooperation, nor long-term participation.

Solution: Think outside the steps-based box. Your goal should be to involve as many employees as possible – regardless of their baseline skills or abilities. Offer contests and challenges that cover a wide variety of metrics and leverage an assortment of tools and game mechanics – allowing the competition to be relevant and inviting for all employees and all engagement preferences.

4. Doing the bare minimum

Too many companies are still using an annual biometric screening or health assessment as a wellness program in-and-of-itself … and expecting this bare-minimum approach to drive results.

Biometric screenings, health assessments, and wellness coaching can be great tools for setting baselines and tracking health measurements over time – but these initiatives carry extreme limitations when implemented improperly. For starters, education on its own does not lead to action (for most of us, at least).

Yep, this is old news that we’ve all been shouting from the rooftops for years, but it’s still holding a lot of wellness programs back. In an effort to revive their flailing clinical initiatives, many employers are introducing annual steps campaigns.

This is a great next “step” – but, as described in the previous section, it’s still not an all-encompassing nor progress-driven wellbeing program. Wearable activity trackers have drastically changed the game. Everyone’s using devices these days (and should continue doing so).

Solution: Make biometrics and health assessments a small component of a more comprehensive, socially charged system.  Sure, use screenings and assessments to measure your employees’ baseline stats and uncover the major/chronic issues, but don’t over-test and don’t stop when the testing’s done! Get people involved in sustainable health-habit improvement through personalized, socially engaging activities. Place greater emphasis on progress than outcomes – and applaud reoccurring healthy behaviors over one-time accomplishments.

Recognize achievements and use experiential or trophy-value rewards instead of boring (and ineffective) cash incentives, and watch as your program drives continuous competition and sustained self-improvement. Leverage the power of positive peer rivalries and varied competitions to get all kinds of different employee demographics involved.

After a year or so, reissue your screening or health assessment to track participants’ progress – employees who actively participated should notice improvements (in both measurable stats and in how they feel!) – proving the program’s value and decreasing healthcare costs over time … which is the whole point, right? Bonus: you’re likely to boost employee morale and productivity in the process.

5. “Doing wellness” for the wrong reasons

Over-stressing of outcomes data and ROI overshadows precious progress. Don’t take this the wrong way; data is useful and necessary in a number of ways (e.g., giving employees a baseline with which to track improvement, tracking overall performance of the program, justifying the cost of employee wellness programming), but you can’t expect drastic health outcomes (e.g., huge changes in biometrics and reduced claims) in the first couple years of a wellness program.

That’s especially true when most programs start with an assessment, screening, and risk-based coaching. And, particularly when overall claims analysis is subject to so many external contributing factors besides just the quality of the wellness program. It takes time and gobs of strategic planning to establish an effective program. Rushing and focusing on the wrong things makes for a solid recipe for failure.

Solution: Strive for more than “just” health care-cost savings. Focus instead on engaging employees in social health-habit improvement, and expanding your definition of wellness success. Focus on Value on Investment (VOI) instead of pure ROI – look at reductions in sick time, happier people, more productive people, better sense of culture and job satisfaction, boosted retention (and recruiting abilities), improved overall morale, better focus and “presentness” at work, and an improved work/life balance.

Keep these five issues (and more importantly, the solutions) in mind, and your corporate wellness program has a real shot at thriving – resulting in the productive, cost-saving workforce you’ve desired from the get-go.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.