Dos and Don'ts for Competitive Employee Wellness Program Activities at Work

February 04, 2019

Woman stretching at work
Kip Soteres

Motivational dieting and competitive employee wellness program activities are an opportunity to inspire and create camaraderie among employees. Done well, such activities can engage new segments of the population and encourage a mutually supportive environment for improved health.

The following dos and don'ts will help you tailor programs that are right for your organization.

Dos

Include everyone. If you have a step program, make sure to have alternative goals for people who, due to disabilities or health limitations, cannot safely meet the targets. If you have a nutritional program, make sure it's vetted to be appropriate for employees with specialized dietary requirements — account for as much diversity as you can, including food allergies, vegans and diabetics. Some organizations reach out to racially and ethnically diverse segments of their population to include their staple foods in nutritional recommendations.

Engage leaders. Motivational dieting and other employee wellness program activities do better when they are visibly accepted and promoted by senior leaders outside. Senior leaders are often willing to waive privacy issues that can be a challenge for employee-based, outcome-based contests. Employees get a kick out of the narrative that unfolds when executives compete with each other, and their activities can inspire new levels of participation across the broader organization.

Incentivize success and create categories to put success in reach for many groups. A single prize can create sour grapes at the end of an otherwise successful effort. Competing for number of steps is great, but the mail room team may walk thousands of steps every day as part of their core function. Other groups may "cherry pick" fitness fiends to create a super-team of ringers. As your program extends over years, consider offering prizes to sub-functions like "most steps in IT," or to reward improvement, "most improved over last year."

Consider granting bonuses for alternative activities. Good health goes beyond better fitness. One great way to include a broader swath of employees is to grant "points" to teams that perform community service or that conduct an event like a healthy potluck lunch. If your company traditionally offers cookies and sweets, offer bonus points for replacing candy with carrots or other vegetables.

Consider program rewards that keep the health and wellness going. Ergonomic office furniture or a year's subscription to a yoga program, spa or healthy food service like HelloFresh ensure that winners are encouraged to sustain their good behaviors even after employee wellness program activities have ended.

Don'ts

Don't make a program that creates a few elite teams of super-users. Contests that reward the formation of super-users can create skepticism and sense of hopelessness. Having the same group of people win the top prize every year is a sure way to bring your competition to a quick end. You can moderate the effect of super-users after year one by awarding the top prize to most-improved participants or creating sub-prizes that spread the wealth.

Don't create motivational dieting programs that could encourage unhealthy behaviors. Some employees don't need to lose weight, and for others losing weight could, for various reasons, be impossible or unwise. When creating a contest, consider focusing on behaviors over outcomes, and remember that it's fine and fun to grant points for bonus activities that could include submitting recipes or workout tips, making signs and more.

Don't create employee wellness program activities that expose personal health information (PHI). While shows like "The Biggest Loser" have popularized public weigh-ins, participants in those programs have to sign waivers that allow that information to be public. It can be cumbersome to collect the waivers and if competition rewards are large enough, a court might even consider the signing of those waivers as coerced. Any outcome-based competition should take a careful look at the PHI implications.

Follow these dos and dont's to get a good head start when creating motivational dieting and other employee wellness program activities to inspire your employees in the moment, and for years to come.

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