by Beth Shepard   Beth's profile on LinkedIn  

Trevor in Sales is excited about your team walking challenge; it appeals to his competitive nature and sounds like fun. Upstairs, Monica in IT is rallying her coworkers; she hopes the accountability of showing up for her team will keep her on track. And down the hall, José in Payroll is interested, but not thrilled; he feels discouraged by previous attempts at getting fit, but figures it might be worth another try.

We’d like to think people sign up for wellness programs because of something we have control over — like a really cool platform, eye-catching incentives, and irresistible marketing pieces. These extrinsic factors influence participation to an extent, but below the surface it’s the intrinsic, personal factors that inspire involvement and lasting success.

How do you effectively promote your wellness program when so many elements affect a decision to join or not join? Take a closer look; many reasons that seem unrelated share common motivational roots. Identify and tap into these behavior-change catalysts to make your program — and marketing efforts — more attractive to your target audience.

Intrinsic Motivators

People who sign up voluntarily — without the pressure of an incentive or penalty — are often motivated by one or more of these aspects:

  • Curiosity. Novel experiences, opportunities for learning, and real or virtual adventures are naturally enticing. Well designed programs include these features to pique interest, keep participants guessing, and enhance engagement.
  • Camaraderie. The need for belonging and connection drives a wide range of behaviors, and is a strong motivator for joining team wellness challenges. Pursuing well-being goals as a team is a lot more fun — and effective — than going it alone. With a team challenge, social support for behavior change is built in.
  • Core values. Completing a wellness program or practicing healthy behaviors can be expressions of personal values.
  • Quality of life. Frustration with the status quo and the desire for a better life can spur behavior change. If people believe your program can help them bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be, they’re more likely to sign up.
  • Fun. Who isn’t captivated by the chance to enjoy yourself? Changing behavior is anything but easy, but a little levity makes participation a lot more appealing.

Align your program — and messaging — to these motivators, and you’ll get more takers.

Easier Said Than Done

What About You?

Think about the last big decision you made about your health behaviors — whether it was starting a different exercise program, showing up for your physical exam, or trying a new recipe.

What intrinsic factors influenced you?

Signing up for a wellness program is one thing; committing to the hard work of sustainable behavior change is quite another. For wellness professionals, it’s easy to lose sight of the everyday challenges participants face in adopting a healthy habit we’ve long since mastered. Here’s a partial list of common barriers and stressors that make change difficult:

  • Social. Spouse, partner, family, friends, or coworkers who engage in unhealthy habits
  • Community. Lack of a safe place to walk outside; no nearby fitness facilities; limited access to fresh produce; transportation difficulties
  • Work. Sedentary jobs; demanding schedules; shift work; heavy workloads; bad bosses; lengthy commutes; lack of autonomy or flexibility
  • Personal. Low self-efficacy, self-esteem, or self-compassion; past failed attempts to change; relationship issues; parenting or caregiving responsibilities
  • Physical/mental health. Anxiety/stress; depression; sleep problems; poor nutrition; low fitness levels; musculoskeletal, metabolic, or cardiovascular disease or other chronic conditions that make physical activity extra challenging
  • Financial. Personal debt, daycare or college expenses; medical or legal bills.

These obstacles aren’t insurmountable; but they can feel that way when you’re the one facing them. Be sensitive to the fact that getting and staying fit under the best of circumstances, for example, require a lot more than regular exercise. They involve:

  • Finding an activity compatible with lifestyle, schedule, and preference
  • Willingness to tolerate discomfort
  • Daily motivation, flexibility, and problem-solving
  • Deep personal commitment.

Add any common barriers to the mix and the going gets really tough.

The Hope Factor

People who sign up for wellness programs have hope that something good will result. Otherwise, why would they bother? According to psychologist and author Frank Hanna, hope is a vital precursor to behavior change; unless someone has hope that things can and will get better, they won’t attempt it. He points out that hope is closely related to learned optimism and can be practiced as a skill.1,2 That’s good news — because you can help foster hope by doing something as simple as posting success stories from former participants. Seeing “someone just like me” overcome hurdles and achieve a big health goal builds hope — and interest in joining your wellness program.

7 Ways to Inspire Hope in Your Target Population

  1. Invite and publish a diverse collection of success stories.
  2. Encourage reflection on past successes and how to leverage character strengths to achieve new goals.
  3. Deploy social media-style program walls for encouragement and connection.
  4. Frame wellness programs and activities as opportunities; avoid features and language that could be perceived as threatening or warning.
  5. Cultivate problem-solving skills by guiding participants to better cope with stressors and plan how to get around wellness hindrances. Post “what would you do?” scenarios to spark discussions.
  6. Include stress-coping strategies and resources in your menu of wellness offerings.
  7. Connect in person with participants, both current and potential; get to know their stories and struggles. When it’s appropriate, look them in the eye and tell them you believe in their ability to reach their well-being goals.

I worked with a lady who had lost hope of ever maintaining a healthier weight. At 5’0” and 53 years, Jeannette had a sedentary job and was 60 pounds overweight. Hating the way she looked and felt, plus feeling like a failure after many years of yo-yo dieting, led to despair. Jeannette joined a group fitness program because her husband did; as a result, she connected with other participants who had struggled with weight loss and succeeded. Knowing this gave Jeannette a glimmer of hope. She stuck with it, felt better and more confident as her fitness level improved, and began losing weight.

According to Jeannette, having others believe in her when she didn’t believe in herself — and being surrounded by those who were successful in reaching their goals — gave her hope, and that made a world of difference.

Focus on Health, Not Numbers

Trust individuals to know when the timing is right to tackle behavior change; they may pass on your program this time, but sign up enthusiastically in 6 months or a year. To truly influence well-being, aim for long-term engagement and sustainable behavior change, not a meaningless, short-term spike in participation stats. Meanwhile, promote EAP services and multiple entry points for wellness activities to let people know resources are available when theyre ready.

Take steps to better understand your target population’s level of hope, intrinsic motivators, and everyday struggles. Then sharpen and streamline your outreach for greater self-motivated participation, better engagement, and lasting, life-changing outcomes.

1 Hanna F, Therapy With Difficult Clients; Using the Precursors Model to Awaken Change, American Psychological Association, 2002

2 Seligman M, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Free Press, 1998.


# Susan Perry 2015-05-14 18:26
What a great, targeted article. It is reassuring to see our program approach and strategies promoted on this platform. I use these in working with the participants in our Diabetes Prevention Program as well.
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