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Gamifying your corporate wellbeing program: why it's not working

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Getting people to engage in wellness activities is an age-old challenge. It was what motivated me to get my MS in Health Communication and it's a topic I still love to talk about. Every time I get an email from Wellable, I get excited because they write great posts, and their recent post on gamified fitness is no different.

Gameifying participation in wellness programs is one of the ways that companies strive to get their employees to participate. If it's fun and you can earn money or swag, they will come. But do they? The short answer is...maybe? The longer answer's complicated. Because it's so complicated, the Wellable article just scratches the surface.

Behavior change is ultimately at the heart of any wellness or wellbeing program: what is the "harmful" activity that needs to be modified and/or what is the "positive" activity that needs to start, and how do you get people to stop the harmful and/or start the beneficial? This can apply to your typical activity and nutritional wellness, but it can also apply to mental health, financial wellness, sleep activity and even relationships.

So what is the secret sauce for successful wellness programs? It's not any one thing, and it takes more than throwing monetary rewards or checking off the "offer wellness program" box off of your benefits list. Here's why wellness programs aren't successful:

  1. Leadership, leadership, leadership: I've said it before and I'll say it again--support of these programs has to come from the top. Company leaders set the tone for a company. If they're not drinking the Kool-Aid, they shouldn't expect others to drink it too. That doesn't mean you need athletes leading your company--in fact, that might backfire because if your leader runs Ironmans, that might be perceived as so unattainable for the "average" employee, they'll never get there. But you do need leaders that openly promote the program and participate in it themselves.

  2. Culture, culture, culture: In addition to setting the tone, leaders also influence the culture. Does the culture support wellbeing or are people pushed until their burnt out? Are the wellness programs perceived as merely a way to reduce healthcare costs? Do working parents feel supported? What about the singletons? If the culture isn't great, people won't engage.

  3. Diversity, diversity, diversity: Is gamification universal across genders, ethnicity, and sexual orientation? Spoiler alert--NO. How are you encouraging employees that aren't motivated by gamification? No attempt is one size fits all, so there needs to be an offering or motivation there for everyone. Not sure if you're doing that? Well, that's your problem right there.

  4. Enrollment vs. Engagement: Companies need to look at both enrollment and engagement data. People enrolling in a program is just one step--how are they interacting with the program and are they continuing to interact with the program?

  5. Barriers, barriers, barriers: Who are the people participating? Who are the people not participating? Who are the people that start off strong but then peter out? Look at the data and ask questions: why are people not participating? What are their barriers to doing so? Is it distrust in the company? Is the employee a single parent and doesn't have time? Is it because they don't feel represented in marketing materials or the activities they get rewarded for aren't activities they participate in? You need to know the answers to these questions because without it, you can't make changes.

  6. Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: If you want to encourage people to change their behavior, you can start with extrinsic motivators like money or time off or some other kind of reward. But if they are going to continue the behavior, the change needs to come from within. External rewards only work for so long. People will eventually lose interest or max out of the rewards. But if they are motivated internally to change a behavior, then their more likely to be successful.

Like I said--it's complicated. But it's not insurmountable. Set realistic goals for program participation. Get leadership buy-in. Understand the difference between enrollment and engagement and clearly define them. Make it fun. Talk to people--get success stories but also get to know the people that aren't participating and create ways to overcome those barriers and objections.

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