We couldn’t help but view a recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review with a mix of dismay and amusement. The story – titled “How Healthy are Wellness Programs?” – pointed out that most companies with wellness programs spend $50 to $100 in incentives per employee to prod their workforce to join. At Consol Energy Inc., each employee gets a “well being” day off with pay. At Bayer Corp., it’s a $50 gift card for general merchandise of the employee’s choice.
These companies are hardly alone in throwing money or perks at employees to induce them into wellness programs. A recent survey by Cowden Associates found that 69 percent of employers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio offer incentives to participate. And yet, the story noted that less than half of the companies in Western Pennsylvania measure whether such programs work well.
In Bayer’s case, the company piloted a wellness program in the Pittsburgh area from 2008 through 2010, then expanded it to all 60 offices nationally this spring. As of April, about 35 percent of its employees had signed up for the nationwide program; the goal is 50 percent by year’s end. Those who enroll get a gift card for general merchandise at area stores.
Obviously, we believe wellness programs are a great addition to a company’s benefit portfolio. However, while incentives may help to motivate employees in the short term, they can fall short on providing sustainable behavior change that makes a real impact on a person’s health.
Wellness programs work best when the focus is on helping motivate individuals for their long term well-being. For instance, behavioral change coaching can help participants connect their health with things in their life they value highly, like being able to enjoy their grandchildren, retirement, and other perks. While this may seem logically obvious, people typically don’t make the connection in a way that motivates change until the individual takes time to reflect on what is important to them.
Once that connection is solidified, an employee experiences motivation that can last a lifetime—well past receiving the incentive check. Without an environment that supports long-term wellness, people eventually turn back to their unhealthy habits.
What’s the alternative to incentives? Some ideas include:
– Provide behavioral coaching that helps employees link their goals to personal values
– Monitor employee work-life balance
– Stock vending machines with healthy foods
– Start a walking club
– Host a healthy recipe exchange on the intranet
– Ensure employees have easy access to resources for emotional issues, like an EAP program
– Assign a team to coordinate and spearhead company wellness initiatives
– Make wellness a constant/consistent message that’s driven and modeled by top leaders
In a telling example, Bayer’s manager of diversity and work life participated in the Pittsburgh
pilot program, but it wasn’t the gift card that persuaded her to join. Rather, it was the realization that “my cholesterol is on the high end.” She adopted an exercise regimen, monitors her diet, and uses the wellness program’s online tools to guide her dining selections.
That’s true behavior change.