by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

“Employees Loved It” and Other Signs You May Be Doing the Wrong Thing

At HES, whenever we hear something like the employees loved… we hold our breath, because it’s often followed by the latest flavor-of-the-month wellness activity. While we’re big believers in delighting employees with whatever wellness benefit you’re promoting, if it’s not tied to an overall objective or the program’s mission, it’s probably neutral at best and harmful to health enhancement efforts at worst.

More examples to indicate you may be missing the mark:

  • Making gift cards, cash, premium discounts central to your participation/engagement strategy. Employees LOVE them, until they don’t. They don’t when the gift card values shrink (or even fail to go up), when the cash rewards and premium discounts go away, or the model is switched to a punitive approach. It’s a cycle that appears to play out over 3-5 years every time with every organization. You’re left with a portion of your population — those you’ve trained to expect bribery to do something you want them to want to do for themselves. The moment you pay people to perform healthy habits (or punish them for not doing so), you begin to crowd out intrinsic motivation — making long-term improvement more difficult.
  • Requiring everyone who has a Fitbit® from the employer to track this or that on it for… (fill in the blank). People appreciate getting the newest shiny thing; employees LOVE them. But the data is pretty clear that left to themselves, whether the individual or the company purchased the device, more than half stop wearing it in less than 6 months. That’s okay, really. While a device can help contribute to a fun, friendly campaign, in the end something has to switch in the participant’s brain to make them want to continue being active, eating more healthfully, managing stress, improving sleep habits. For some, a device is part of the answer; for many others, it’s something else. Give away (or subsidize) all the devices you want, but don’t attach any strings.
  • Recognizing the “winners” over those who have really done what you’d hoped. Winners LOVE being on top. We’re always surprised when a wellness coordinator wants to hold up teams and individuals who accumulate the most points, miles, badges, weight loss, etc., as role models for all to see. We’re even more dismayed when they give away valuable prizes to these overachievers. And we’re downright perplexed when the award winners are company leaders. For most of your population (60%-80%) you’re simply trying to encourage and support them in reaching a threshold for exercise, more produce, weight, sleep. Highlighting achievements of the top 1%-3% isn’t inspiring; it’s demoralizing. Help people set challenging yet achievable goals, create an environment that supports those goals, and recognize the desired behavior of regular folks if you want to motivate.

To be clear, the employees hated it isn’t a desirable outcome either. But if you can achieve the accolades we all like to hear and move the needle on population health behaviors, you’ll have a wellness program that’s making valuable contributions.


# Tricia Zamora 2017-05-30 22:26
Do you have suggestions for organizations like mine who want to thoughtfully make a shift from extrinsic to more intrinsic?
Currently our program is completely voluntary. Nobody is given a device or forced to wear one. Nobody is penalized for not participating. 60% of our population are on board with 47% more heavily engaged, having fun and feeling more motivated. Some are sharing about their wellness journey online as well as the intrinsic value it brings to their life. Everyone is appreciating the extrinsic benefits. Help!
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# Dean 2017-05-31 00:38
Hi Tricia - thanks for the question; it sounds like your program is on the right track. I'll point you to a couple of our white papers that address moving from extrinsic motivators to setting the stage for intrinsic motivation to grow: 1), 2) and lastly, here's a relevant blog post (an excerpt from #2 above)
Hope that helps; keep up the great work.
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# Melissa Bondy 2017-05-16 21:33
Just wondering what research actually shows long term behavior change with extrinsic incentives?
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# Dean 2017-05-17 16:00
You hit the nail on the head, Melissa; we're not aware of any such research. Extrinsic incentives work only for simple, short-term behaviors, like completing an HRA; they're ineffective for addressing the complexities of lasting lifestyle behavior change.
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# Danielle 2017-05-16 21:14
Great work pointing out that it's not always about incentives, the latest gadgets, and highlighting those that are succeeding in the program. It would be helpful if the article followed up with actions that do lead to greater engagement instead of just communicating what doesn't work. The research shows that incentives, gadgets, etc. do increase participation, but in terms of hitting the intrinsic motivation, or true engagement, what do you recommend?
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# Dean 2017-05-17 15:55
Thanks for the feedback, Danielle. There are many ways to set the stage for intrinsic motivation; I'll point you to a couple of our resources: and
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