More than two-thirds of employers use some sort of financial reward in their wellness incentive program. Not shocking, given skyrocketing health costs and the impact of an unhealthy workforce. But the real shocker is just how many wellness programs fail to reach their goals. However, several researchers are bemoaning that wellness incentive programs don’t actually work.1

Why? It isn’t that the idea of a wellness program is a bad one. In fact, the benefits of a successful program are pretty obvious. The problem is that many wellness incentive programs on the market suffer from chronic problems that prevent them from achieving their goals.

Problem #1: Flawed Wellness Program Design

Obviously, bad design from the start will lead to disappointing results down the road. But the real problem is that most decision-makers just aren’t familiar with what a bad program design looks like.
For example, most wellness incentive programs on the market today put most of their resources into one key step, such as a biometric test. 

Already, this can spell trouble. The best programs use a mix of different programs and incentives to motivate behavioral change over a broad spectrum. But more than the narrow focus, these programs fail when they focus excessively on metrics and tests instead of behaviors. Doing so only encourages employees to ignore the program, or worse, cheat the system.

An analogy helps to make the point here. If a coach simply tells his players to “get out there and win,” they might be motivated for a little while. But they’re unlikely to change their behaviors or play better. A good coach doesn’t continually emphasize winning, but instead instructs his players on how to be better players. And a great coach gives them feedback, every day, and recognition for the things they’re improving on.

In a similar vein, your employees won’t do much if your wellness program just focuses on a biometric assessment. Good programs work to change behaviors. Things like exercise programs, strength training, nutrition programs and smoking cessation programs. And great programs give regular feedback as employees achieve their goals.

Problem #2: Misguided Behavior Focus

One out of every four dollars employers pay for health care is tied to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions. So the obvious step would be to address those lifestyle issues that are driving costs, right?

Some lifestyle issues are pretty widespread. For example, authors Bob and Joseph Weinstein found that out of 100 employees, a typical company will have, on average:

  • 60 who are sedentary
  • 25 who smoke
  • 20 who are obese
  • 27 with active cardiovascular disease
  • 10 with diabetes
  • 50 with high cholesterol
  • 24 with high blood pressure
  • 50 who are suffering from depression, or are otherwise distressed3

This also means that the metrics you choose will have to tie in directly with the behaviors that are driving health costs the most. There is no one key metric for determining the health of your workforce. There are several metrics, and you’ll have to use the ones that track the needed lifestyle changes.

Problem #3: Absence of Tracking

Even worse than tracking the wrong things, though, is not tracking at all. There are plenty of wellness programs with tools to track a number of employee behaviors and wellness outcomes. But a tool does no good if it’s not used.

When designing a program, be sure to provide incentives for accurate tracking, as well as for engaging in healthful behaviors. And remember, you’re not just looking for compliance or participation in one-off events. You’ll want to track changes in behavior over time.

Problem #4: Ineffective Incentives

This is a big one. Many wellness incentive programs either use penalties instead of incentives (not a good idea), or they use incentives that employees don’t find all that rewarding. If your incentives don’t motivate, what’s the point?

The #1 incentive that employees ask for in survey after survey is a monetary reward. We agree that monetary awards are often more effective than, say, prizes from a catalog or extra time off from work. But you have to choose the right monetary reward.

For example, a direct deposit of cash into an employee’s bank account might be appreciated at first, but this money often gets used for everyday things (like paying bills). Employees don’t make an emotional connection with the cash, nor is it particularly memorable. In fact, cash loses its reward value over time as employees get used to receiving it regularly.

And this is the opposite of the effect you want. Incentives should be able to nudge the employee along their behavioral change, and so need to stay fresh over a long period of time. A good wellness incentive program, then, needs incentives with some staying power. The most effective rewards are prepaid and gift cards, which provide the customization to tailor to your program and your goals. They can be redeemed universally, or on a subset of healthy items. Also, they can be delivered digitally and physically for any range of values. 

Problem #5: Lack of Engagement

In order for a wellness incentive program to get off the ground, you’ve got to really take a step into your employees’ headspace. Simply shoving facts and figures at them won’t spur on behavioral change. Nor will promises of some big, abstract reward to happen sometime in the distant future.

Employees need to see how to make wellness a part of their daily routine. For example, when employees can earn points on a daily basis for healthful activities, they can track their accumulation, making a strong association between the healthy behavior and their progress towards a reward. Likewise, when the rewards are tangible, employees can easily imagine when they’ll earn them, and how they’ll use them.

In fact, a good wellness incentive program becomes almost like a game. There are clear goals to achieve, frequent rewards for achieving them and multiple ways to track progress. Rewards are exciting and memorable. And all throughout, there’s a clear communication with the “player,” delivered using language they can understand.

Now imagine: What would a wellness incentive program look like that incorporated all of these solutions? And how could it change the health of your workforce for the better?

1.    Begley, Sharon. “’Workplace wellness’ fails bottom line, waistlines.” May 24, 2013. Reuters.
2.    Bailey, Laura. “Unhealthy choices cost company health care plans billions of dollars.” December 10, 2015. Michigan News.
3.    Weinstein, Bob and Joseph R. Boot Camp Fitness for All Shapes and Sizes: Complete Manual to Exceed Your Goals. 2010, Health Colonel Publishing.