How to Boost Employee Participation in Wellness Programs

A more heavy-handed approach to getting employees to take part in wellness programs can prove a frustrating turnoff. A more nuanced approach has a better chance of showing success, a new study finds.

Employee wellness programs are a great way to keep workers in the zone and at the top of their game.

But such programs can be controversial, and carry with them a rub that can be difficult to get past: Getting people to participate can be really hard.

Some of that may be on your organization, however. A recent study on the matter from the firm StayWell [PDF] found that more than half of all employees choose not to take part in well-being programs, citing a general lack of support for such programs from management. Those who did participate, however, were better able to mitigate health risks.

One point that StayWell emphasized about its evaluation of nearly 39,000 participants was that the way participation is measured within an organization should be reexamined.

“Measurement of participation generally takes a ‘did it or not’ approach, despite the understanding that participation in employer-based health and well-being programs is nuanced,” said Erin Seaverson, StayWell’s senior director of research and evaluation and author of the study, in a news release [PDF]. “This study aimed to refine how participation is defined and measured.”

The more low-key approach stands in contrast to the more punitive approach some programs rely upon. An op-ed essay in The New Republic, for example, notes that employees often run into wellness approaches that seemingly push the benefit into the realm of requirement:

Some, like Go365, are obviously punitive, levying up to thousands of dollars in fines on workers who refuse to participate in wellness campaigns or fail to meet certain biometric measures of health. Others have more nebulous incentives—a gift card, say, or a discount on gym membership. The line between punishment and incentive, however, is thin. If a worker gets a gym reimbursement for working out six times a month, doesn’t that translate to a material punishment for those with physical disabilities, those who are overworked, and those who simply would prefer not to?

In a blog post related to the study, Seaverson suggested a more targeted and individualized approach might have a better chance of working in a positive fashion.

“This is also an opportunity for employers to review how they’re communicating with employees about well-being,” she wrote. “The results can be used to recommend specific programs to individuals that will have the greatest possible health impact, ultimately making well-being programs more targeted, effective, and valuable.”

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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