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The key to an effective wellness program? Choice Add to ...

Want a really effective workplace wellness program? Next time you offer a general wage increase to your staff, trim it back by 0.5 percentage points, and put that money into a fund that will be used as incentives for employees to take part in wellness activities. Set up a generous system of rewards so they can easily get that money for taking part in healthful actions – don’t be stingy and try to save money, but do your best to give it away, since it was going to be theirs anyway. You are just redirecting it.

Next time there’s another scheduled pay increase, repeat the process. In a few years, you will have a very well-funded wellness program – an anomaly, since well-funded is not usually associated with wellness programs. Usually they are carried out on the cheap. And you know the results.

The idea comes from Rae Lee Clark, chief compliance officer at Vita Benefits Group, who started a wellness program for the Silicon Valley-based employee benefits consultancy, testing models so that she could then advise other companies on such ventures.

“Our employees were guinea pigs. We tried everything as I felt I had to experience it before taking it to our clients,” she said in an interview.

The first lesson she shares is that the program should be comprehensive, not just focused on one slice of health, like reducing blood pressure or encouraging employees to give up smoking. You have to meet people where they are, addressing their current health concerns, and that means a broad context. You can roughly divide your activities into two categories: Elements that promote a healthy lifestyle and targeted programs to tackle actual health risks and conditions facing current employees. At Vita, that involved eight buckets: Nutrition, exercise, self-care, health care, friends and family, work, community and green activities such as recycling, and financial wellness.

You might wonder how recycling came to be inserted there. But the employees were being reminded about the value of a healthy community, not just their own personal health. Still, points for activities – and resulting rewards – were skewed toward the more important personal health activities, like moving more and getting your regular colonoscopy, rather than taking out the blue box.

Employees customized their health programs to their own interests and needs, using computer software. “If you don’t like yoga, you could hide it so it didn’t come up. If a marathon is not realistic for you, then you could arrange a prompt to walk more,” she explained.

This element of personal choice was honing in on motivation. When you launch a wellness program, it’s very easy to motivate the motivated – people who already go to the gym five days a week and run 15 kilometres on Sunday. The issue is how to get somebody who is significantly overweight and has bad knees to participate – the unmotivated and discouraged.

“If the bar is too high, people will give up on their goals. So let them pick – customizing is vital for long-term success,” she said.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day. We didn’t get into this spate of poor health in one day or one year. So expecting big changes in three months is unrealistic.”

In that vein, she recommends starting small. Pick out something that is achievable and sustainable for your organization, and make sure the top leaders are truly on board. Don’t try for all eight buckets but add them over time. If you attempt too much or lack support, expect that eventually the effort will fizzle out.

Most programs start with a splash, usually some free T-shirts or a mug promoting better health and perhaps some movie tickets as prizes for taking part. But she insists “You can’t run a wellness program on movie tickets and a mug. You need serious money on the table. Changing human behaviour is the hardest thing in the world.”

The monetary rewards are not going to provide long-term motivation. Ultimately, the motivation must be internal. But the money can kick-start people’s participation, until they notice some benefits and internal motivation kicks in. Money is also widely applicable. The person can use it to fix a garage door, have a vacation, or help send a child to college – whatever they most prize. “You don’t know what people want – what will motivate them. Money is the only motivator that ties all that together,” she said.

Vita put serious money on the table, expecting to pay out $3,000 per person or $4,000 if there was a dependent on the company health plan. It paid out 75 per cent of what it budgeted – 75 per cent of what it had siphoned from possible pay increases, remember – so that was sign of a strong take-up rate. Employees had to log in to collect their points, which some people felt was a hassle but others found a useful way to review their progress each week.

Try to keep it fresh, with new activities being highlighted in special monthly challenges. One recent month for Vita it was to create a new habit. The previous month was to be outside for 20 minutes a day (“It’s not exactly the Arctic here in California,” she notes). When encouraging staffers to volunteer at the food bank, the rewards were higher if people went in larger groups, since social bonding is part of good health.

And promote the program boldly. A quiet wellness program is no wellness program,” she warns.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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