Feature Article - January/February 2020

Wellness to Well-Being

Wellness Programming, Incentives & Reward Strategies

By Rick Dandes

Avoid the Pitfalls

"The first thing I tell people when they are putting together a program," said Patel, "is to understand your employee base and what you want your employees to do. That is a function of knowing the demographics of that population. If you know the demographics well, especially if you are launching the program for the first time, start with a survey in advance to understand where the employees feel unwell or where they can use the most help. This is an opportunity, in the case of the rewards, where you can ask individuals during that survey what rewards are the most appealing. Capturing that data up front allows the voice of those employees to be in the program, and having one that is desirable to a broad population, but also have the perception of individual ownership in those programs."

Another thing Patel suggested is to make sure that you are picking your offerings or getting feedback on the services that are most useful to employees.

"Here is something that is not impactful," Patel said. "We still see employers offering biometric screenings as part of the programs. Biometric screenings were part of the original wellness programs, back in the 1980s and 1990s as a primary element of wellness programs. Individuals would become aware of their cholesterol and things like that. But those programs have largely been debunked in terms of effectiveness."

The U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce rendered an opinion on the efficacy of preventive procedures like biometrics screenings. Because they are ineffective in improving health, they do not recommend biometric screenings in general, but especially for employee wellness programs. And that doesn't take into consideration that the employer has to pay potentially $50 for every employee who gets one. "It is a very toxic procedure," Patel contends. "Irrespective of cost, it is not found to be very effective. As a good steward of your employees' health, you should not present every option that ever existed in your employee wellness program, but a curated list of options that you know to be effective."

Another of the biggest mistakes in wellness design, Schierenbeck added, is when it isn't integrated culturally and is not part of an overall concept of well-being. "In order for it to be an effective wellness program focused on well-being, the key to success is trust. Employees need to understand and trust the intent of a program, and feel like they are not being micro-managed, versus a concept of 'this organization cares about my overall well-being.' That is where programs can go wrong."

If participants don't trust the program's intent, she said, they might not buy into the concept. "I think that they need to be owned at an organizational level. And participation has to happen top-down, bottom-up and side-to-side. What can go wrong is when they are not thinking about engagement. And if they are not promoting a sense of trust with these types of initiatives. Those are the design considerations that need to happen."

The other thing that can go wrong in these types of programs, Schierenbeck said, is to not have enough rewardable content. "Also, if you don't have enough opportunity for people to be recognized for these programs. Participants need to be thought about holistically. We can drive different types of awareness through different types of activities. That again gets into that over-arching concept around wellbeing."

It's important to be realistic and to understand that you won't get everyone to participate in your wellness program, Galonek noted. "Most poorly run wellness programs have participation levels of 20% or less with high turnover. But properly built ones can approach 50% participation levels on a sustained basis, which reflects an outstanding performance."

The other caveat, Galonek said, is that in order to be effective, you must get the cash (and cash-like substitutes like gift cards) out of the award mix. "There is a wealth of information out there that substantiates the theory that programs that award with cash are simply far less effective. Yes, cash is what everyone will say they want, but in a rewards program, it is not what they will work harder and smarter for in the long run."

Tangible and experiential awards greatly outperform cash in all employee rewards programs, he said. "To get sustainable performance, you need participants to remember that they have been recognized and rewarded, and cash is forgotten almost as soon as it is received. The same is true for gift cards, where the recipients often redeem them months later for things they will never remember."

Lastly, Galonek said, it is important to recognize the difference between a wellness software technology provider and a wellness solution provider that also has the needed software. "It takes more than just good software to run a successful program; it takes a provider that knows how to structure the program and how to include a properly built recognition component."