Alternative Incentives for Employee Wellness Participation

February 16, 2019

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Kip Soteres

Employee wellness incentive program ideas can take your organization beyond the hamster wheel of monetary rewards. Corporations have been significantly trending towards their use. The National Business Group on Health recently reported results of the ninth annual survey on corporate Health & Well-being from Fidelity Investments.

The survey of mid-sized to large organizations reveals that 86 percent of employers offer financial incentives for wellness and that the amount of the incentive has climbed to $784, which is up 50 percent since 2013.

Limitations to Financial Incentives

The report has spawned a number of articles promoting the use of financial incentives, but they tend to overlook critical caveats. A recent Rand Corporation Research Brief addresses several issues.

For one thing, employee wellness programs with or without incentives have better participation rates when they are comprehensive to address screening, lifestyle management and disease management. Broader programs have the flexibility to hook more employees. In fact, comprehensive programs with no financial incentive have a 52 percent employee participation rate; they outperform the 40 percent participation rate for positively incented programs among all employers.

Another problem with financial incentives is that penalties tend to work better than rewards. Programs that focus on the takeaways are establishing a negative tone that can have long-term effects on the levels of employee morale and trust. The aforementioned Rand Report indicates participation rates above 70 percent for employers who use penalties, but at what long-term cost?

Finally, there is the tendency for incentives to become entitlements over time. Forbes.com reports that when employees start to expect their annual "reward," they learn to perform to the minimum to accomplish it, and, "additionally, if they don't obtain the bonus, employees can become upset and experience lowered job satisfaction."

Financial incentives draw a lot of legal scrutiny and are always subject to the next court case. Why not skip the stress entirely if you can achieve positive results with less focus on financial incentives?

Alternative Employee Wellness Incentive Program Ideas

Rather than leverage dollars to achieve results, why not leverage social rewards? Examples include:

  1. Create "gold" wellness programs that employees can join after successful completion of a basic program.
  2. Establish employee wellness ambassadors empowered to influence healthier behaviors. Have ambassadors meet health and wellness criteria in order to be considered for the role.
  3. Set aside healthy half-hours for employees who submit ideas on how they will spend that time as a group on a healthy pursuit: desk stretching, a group walk or ride, a healthy recipe exchange, etc.
  4. Build opportunities for healthy employee advocates who meet program criteria to meet with senior leadership in a social setting at work, either on a break or over a healthy breakfast or lunch.
  5. Recognition in the form of a video and article about healthy practices of select employees.

Soft Dollar Solutions

Other solutions are arguably "financial" but avoid some of the bigger issues that come with offering cash incentives. Some examples include:

  • Provide raffle tickets for employees participating in health and wellness activities. Innovative raffle prizes range from a simple extra day of paid time off to spa memberships, healthy walking trips/tours, ergonomic furniture, a healthy cart with free snack options for a week, or focused wellness coaching (smoking cessation, nutrition, training, etc.) depending on the needs of the winner
  • Establish trophies for cross-group competitions tied to health and wellness activities

You can also tie company investments to group participation rates in ways that can mobilize the workforce to collaborate and achieve the benefit. Examples of rewards that you can tie to wellness participation rates include:

  • The creation of company-sponsored sports teams.
  • A health and wellness day with vendors and other opportunities for employees to celebrate their progress toward better health.
  • An innovative new wellness benefit for the coming year — anything from meditation to cooking classes.

Thinking Outside the Cash Box

Wellness programs should not turn into yet another cash exchange. Financial incentives tend to provide diminishing returns over time, and the most effective dollar incentives tend to be punishments over rewards. Wellness is a benefit to employees and to the organization: Treat it as the amazing opportunity that it is.

These employee wellness incentive program ideas will move you away from commerce and toward a stronger community of people working together for their collective benefit.

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