Wellness Program Engagement is an Inside Job

Specifically, your employees’ own intrinsic desires.

One of the biggest challenges employers face when developing a wellness program is getting their employees to take advantage of all the benefits it offers.

It’s true.

Even though prospective hires evaluate employers based on the benefits they offer, including wellness benefits, they don’t always use those benefits once they have the job. While employees are highly interested in improving their well-being, acting on that interest isn’t always a top priority.

Nonetheless, employee engagement with your workplace wellness program is crucial to its success.

In 2018, the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with Transamerica Center for Health Studies, published a guide for employers titled Finding Fit: Implementing Wellness Programs Successfully. In it, the researchers caution that even programs that have proved to be effective in theory won’t succeed if employers don’t achieve a critical mass of employee participation.

“A program has no success of being effective if employees don’t participate and don’t maintain their participation through the lifecycle of the program.” –Finding Fit: Implementing Wellness Programs Successfully

What can employers do to increase the number of participants in their wellness programs?

Two approaches to motivating employees

Extrinsic rewards, such as financial incentives, are part of the solution to increasing employee participation but employers must look deeper to achieve long-term success. The trick to higher wellness program engagement lies in tapping into your employees’ intrinsic desires.

What’s the difference between these two motivators? Susan Zbikowski explains in her article for Corporate Wellness Magazine, A Look at Incentives and How They Impact Motivation, that intrinsic desires are personal to the individual. These are the person’s internal motivators. When someone is intrinsically motivated to do something, it is because that action aligns with his or her lifestyle and life choices.

Intrinsic motivations are sustainable because they are self-perpetuating.

“I feel good when I do this activity, therefore, I’m going to keep doing it.”

Extrinsic motivations have limited staying power. To be effective, an extrinsic motivator must continually overcome the disincentive that an individual feels.

“I don’t really want to do this, but I will do it this time because I want the offered reward.”

Why not rely on extrinsic motivation?

The power of intrinsic motivations doesn’t mean that extrinsic motivation doesn’t play an important role in employee uptake of wellness programs. Extrinsic motivators such as financial incentives, token prizes and rewards, and even penalties for non-participation are useful for getting employees to give wellness activities a try. However, extrinsic motivators may also foster resentment. Your employees may feel coerced by financial necessity to provide medical information or participate in activities when they don’t really want to. Additionally, federal laws may limit the use of financial incentives or penalties in certain circumstances.

Intrinsic motivation for the win

Applying the trans-theoretical model of health behavior change to workplace wellness uptake and participation, it becomes clear that once employees reach the maintenance stage, self-motivation is essential. In How to Design a Corporate Wellness Plan That Actually Works, the authors state that after incentives have encouraged employees to begin their health journey, “the challenge is to migrate employees from simply participating for a reward (external incentive) to a place where the new behavior or habit is sufficiently satisfying and worth maintaining (internal incentive.)”

What are some methods you can use to fuel your employees’ intrinsic desire for wellness?

Support the formation of good habits

If you want your employees to make healthy choices a part of their daily life, you have to give them the opportunity to do so. Provide flexible schedules, on-site food, fitness and health offerings that allow your employees to walk the walk.

Empower your employees through education

Employees will be more invested in their healthy behaviors if they feel like they have chosen them. You can help them make good choices by providing them with information. Sponsor classes, hang flyers and provide your workforce with access to health-related knowledge that can help them learn to take better care of themselves.

Leverage network effects

Create a culture of wellness so that your employees maintain a sense of community as they engage in their individual wellness journeys. In The Five Dimensions of Creating a Culture of Wellness, Dr. Judd Allen tells employers to foster an environment where encouraging health and wellness are the cultural norms. Employers can also support wellness by modeling healthy behaviors and facilitating peer support and recognition. Each time an employee becomes committed to wellness, he or she will become part of your wellness community. And, over time, the influence of that community will grow.

Now, you have a couple new tools to pump up your employee wellness participation numbers. Give intrinsic motivation a try. Then, be sure to send us a note to tell us how well these methods worked for your company!


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