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Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance

Wellness to Well-Being

Wellness Programming, Incentives & Reward Strategies

Wellness programs have become a key ingredient in the package of benefits offered by many organizations as they seek to recruit, engage and retain quality employees in a tight labor market, with unemployment at its lowest rate in decades.

As wellness benefits expand, the trend in program design strategies have evolved as well. Organizations are taking a more holistic approach to an employee's entire "well-being." This is an approach that might include several dimensions of wellness, including occupational, emotional, social and financial well-being, said Tad Mitchell, president and CEO, Wellright, in Boston.

"Most of the initial wellness programs were more oriented toward biometrics, saving money and outcomes-based wellness," Mitchell said. "A lot of places still do that. But studies have found that people resist programs when you basically force them to be healthy and talk to coaches, all so they can get health insurance discounts."

This next generation of wellness programming, Mitchell said, "is what people are calling holistic wellness. As people get better in all these different areas of their lives, they just become better people—better employees. And better employees make better companies. That is how I see the evolution of wellness."

It begins with program design, suggested Susan Schierenbeck, director of client solutions, Hinda Incentives, Chicago.

What's different now, she said, is how wellness programs are being approached. It starts with program design, shaping out how you are going to reward specific activity. What is new and what is effective in terms of program design are part and parcel of the same conversation. "And so, when you think about wellness solutions, how they perform best is when they are part of an integrated strategy rather than standalone initiatives. That is the biggest shift in what I have seen in terms of program design. People are approaching wellness as a more holistic strategy, rather than as a series of tactical initiatives."

What's new, Schierenbeck said, is when wellness blends into an overarching concept of well-being. "That is truly when these types of programs are most effective."

Consider looking at well-being as a strategy instead of a wellness program, added Alicia Wilson, senior vice president, operations, Best and Brightest Programs, National Association for Business Resources, Warren, Mich. Identify the well-being mission, vision, areas of focus and success metrics (goals), she said. Identify the value on investment (VOI), as well as return on investment (ROI). Create a three- to five-year plan and use your metrics to know if you are achieving your goals, and update your strategy accordingly.

Wilson also offered a to-do checklist: Complete industry scorecards, review vendor reports, apply for reward and recognition programs, and consider employee surveys, she said.

"Analyze the usage of all benefits, including employee assistance programs (EAP), financial/retirement accounts, increase/decrease in retirement loans, increase/decrease in contribution amounts, short-term disability, long-term disability, workers' compensation, and safety and absenteeism data," she added.

Reviewing all these data points, Wilson said, will allow you to accumulate a holistic view of employees' well-being, while permitting you to pivot accordingly if the program is not hitting your goals.

Trending: Integration of Platforms

Incentive companies are integrating their reward and recognition platforms with wellness content and technology platforms.

For All Star Incentive Marketing, one new approach is to provide an "a la carte" wellness menu, said President Brian Galonek.

All Star unbundles pricing so that clients can get the features they need without having to pay for services they already have or don't plan to use, he said. "This is achievable because of our wellness software technology, which is uniquely customizable as compared to the off-the-shelf wellness platforms. The health assessment option is a great example of this. Customers are offered choices, from a basic assessment to options designed by some of the top universities in the country. The results can be fully integrated into each member's personal wellness journey."

Coaching is a feature that some companies may not want, while others consider it a must-have feature, Galonek said. Those that choose to include coaching can opt for a basic platform or one that integrates artificial intelligence (AI) to create a more personalized response that addresses the participant's unique health information, based on the data collected. The feature then connects digital coaches to those in need with a personal action plan to combat any current or projected health issues. These more personalized, optional features are intentionally designed to keep members engaged at a higher level.

Agreeing with Galonek, Nick Patel, president of Wellables, said, "Every company is a little bit different and every employee at that company is different, so the way we think about programming is providing a diversity of options, not only in terms of the well-being activities that you want someone to engage in but also how they engage in this activity," he said.

Some people respond to a digital intervention, Patel explained, while others prefer things to be more physical. "Making sure you cover a wide spectrum of dimensions of well-being, as well as having different delivery mediums and engagement activities is always recommended," Patel said. "On the reward side, providing choice is really important, so what might be interesting or motivating for one person may not be for the next person."

People often think of a well-constructed program as one that provides diversity across the board, so how people can earn points and how they can earn the incentive, as well as which incentive they choose, is key, Patel said. "Everyone is motivated from an incentive perspective in different ways."

Another common-sense trend that All Star Incentive has pioneered is to combine wellness with safety, and in some cases other engagement initiatives. The economies here can be huge in that a single unified "total rewards" program is a far more effective way to engage and motivate your workforce, and it can be tailored to a specific industry.

Engagement is the key, Galonek said, "and combining initiatives like safety and wellness, which are very interrelated issues, optimizes program success and makes good financial sense."

One more suggestion, Galonek said, is to seek funding from your insurance providers, which you then can use more effectively in your own programs. "Most insurance companies continue to throw money at wellness initiatives, but they do so very ineffectively," he explained.

Companies that deploy custom-built and custom-branded employee engagement programs built around wellness can better use those resources to promote a more successful platform. "So, we coach our customers to determine how much financial support their insurance companies are paying out for wellness-related awards, such as joining a gym, getting biometric screenings or annual physicals, and request those funds instead be paid into the company to support a more comprehensive program. This is also important because occasionally companies change insurance companies, and it is far better to have a seamless wellness program that is uninterrupted when these changes take place."

What Works

Addressing choice, and what works, Ira Ozer, president, Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y., said, having an "umbrella" engagement portal that can run all types of programs, including wellness, safety, recognition, incentives and more, is the best and most effective approach. "The benefits include improved centralized communications for participants, one accumulative award currency instead of multiple small awards in different platforms, reporting that can measure engagement across multiple programs, improving efficiency and administrative costs, and more."

A company's wellness program should be looked at as an overall employee engagement tool, Galonek explained. Its primary objective may be to improve the health and wellness of employees, but for many employees it is often the most visible attempt by an employer to engage with them. "As such," he said, "many departments, including safety, operations, sales and customer service, reap the benefits from this same program. Once you see your wellness program in this light, you can more easily understand how and why they can be utilized not only to improve heath, but also to improve morale, job satisfaction and employee retention."

One key to building a successful and sustainable program, Galonek continued, is to put the right incentive in the right place at the right time. "Studies show that wellness program participation rates more than double when companies include a properly built rewards component. Another key is to reward both individual and group accomplishments," he said. "As an example, when you are going to run a company-sponsored step competition, you should put participants into teams and reward not just the individual star performers but also the teams that do the best during any given week. Team challenges and group activities also have been proven to move the needle to increase participation, creating positive inclusion and setting the tone for creating a culture of well-being. This is also a good opportunity to reach into the homes of employees and allow them to include family members in the company-sponsored competition."

It is crucial to custom-brand your wellness or total rewards program, Galonek believes. "You wouldn't buy a dog and name him 'dog,' and you shouldn't name your wellness program 'wellness program.'"

Create a brand name that reflects your goals for the program and your overall companywide mission statement. Create a logo and tag lines that support that brand and promote it like the valuable asset that it is. People respond to brand names in every aspect of their lives, Galonek said, and your custom-branded wellness program can have a powerful influence on their lives and the work that they do.

To be effective, Galonek contends, programs cannot be created and then ignored. Well-run programs require continual attention and planning for things like the scheduling of events and competitions, he said. You also need program "champions" on a granular level, he said. If your company has 100 locations, each with 100 people, you need to call for volunteers to champion the cause in each of those locations. The program cannot be deployed properly with one person or department trying to implement it out of the corporate headquarters.

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."

Think Outside the Box

It is important to offer incentives for people to take wellness actions and achieve results, said Ozer, of Engagement Partners, but small awards can work just as effectively as large ones, "so no need to overdo it. It is also critical to give incentives and recognition for actions, which are 'leading indicators' of improved health and wellness, versus just for results, such as achieving a weight loss goal, because these are lagging indicators."

Companies are getting more creative in their reward offerings. "We talk a lot about groups that don't have rich budgets and the kinds of non-monetary awards they can offer." Patel said. "We found in many cases, especially with companies where the average salaries are pretty high, a monetary award of $50 a month for attorneys who make a significant amount of income, isn't motivating. But when we offered a private one-on-one lunch with senior partners, that was a great reward for individuals who were excited about having a one-on-one with someone who was fairly senior in the company."

Patel offered three examples of creative rewards that don't necessarily cost a lot of money:

  • With 235,000 employees globally, including 200,000 in the United States, Bank of America doesn't play around when thinking about the best way to cost-effectively promote employee engagement in their wellness program, Patel noted. When employees get rewarded, they can choose to send a donation to Habitat for Humanity or pay into an employee relief fund, which will be used to help their teammates when they are faced with financial challenges. The benefits are financial and organizational.
  • Southwest Airlines, Patel said, is also using more creative incentives outside of just offering straight cash. Southwest is famous for using actual employees in marketing materials, including advertisements, commercials and the website. This "perk" is deeply rooted in the culture of Southwest, so it only made sense for Southwest to build it into their emerging culture of health. Although the company still offers cash rewards, one of the most coveted prizes is getting placed on the cover of the website.
  • Zappos is famous for its robust employee benefits and wellness program, Patel said. It offers event reimbursements for any wellness event that an employee participates in. One of the newer Zappos initiatives is called Wellness Adventures, where the wellness coordinator takes a small group of employees from different departments off-site to do something fun away from their desks, like an hour-long golf lesson, laser tag or trampolining. In addition to being fun, it draws individuals from multiple departments, which facilitates interaction amongst colleagues who may not know each other very well. Personal relationships strengthen their wellness and overall culture. In addition, Patel said, it exposes employees to activities they may have not otherwise been exposed to, which creates an opportunity for individuals to find new activities to motivate them to be healthy.

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