Healthy employees don’t just feel better — they perform better. Studies have linked greater health to higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and roughly double the engagement of their colleagues in poor health. Just as significantly, employees actively crave help with getting healthy. Nearly two-thirds say that managing their health is a top priority, and more than half hope their employers will actively encourage healthy lifestyles, according to Willis Towers Watson data presented at the Rally HealthSM Innovation Summit earlier this year.
In other words, companies want healthy employees, and employees want help being healthy. Sounds like every wellness program should be embraced with enthusiasm, right? Yet so many fall flat when it comes to employee buy-in.
“There isn’t an HR professional in the world who would be happy if only 1 percent of the women in their population got their mammograms, or only 1 percent of kids got their immunizations, yet single-digit participation in wellness programs is often the norm,” says Steve Olin, senior vice president at Rally Health. “It doesn’t have to be.”
To improve these lackluster numbers, benefits leaders must break from the standard ways of engaging people. Achieving double-digit buy-in — or even 25-plus percent, as with the Real Appeal digital weight loss program — means rethinking how employees encounter, engage with, and evangelize their company’s wellness program.
“Single-digit participation in wellness programs is often the norm. It doesn’t have to be.” —Steve Olin, Rally Health
The first step is believing that better buy-in is achievable. “Think about how your employees encounter the wellness program. Do they have an experience they want to brag about on Glassdoor?” says Michael Perlmutter, senior consultant and health imagination leader at Willis Tower Watson. If not, it might be time to make some tweaks.
What Highly Engaging Programs Have in Common
1. Curated Choices
Eat more vegetables. Go for a walk. Clock eight hours of sleep. Stop smoking. People generally know what they need to do to live a healthy life — but they can be paralyzed by a tsunami of choices and trying to figure out where to focus first. If they’re feeling overwhelmed or unfocused, opting out is easier than buying in.
Researchers have long noted the danger of too many choices: In one classic study, psychologists presented shoppers with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. On a different day, shoppers saw a similar table with only six options to choose from. The large display attracted more initial interest — but when the time came to purchase, people who saw the larger display were only one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.
If a deluge of choice is paralyzing, having no choices can leave people feeling powerless. Many employer programs, for instance, start with a health assessment and then tell employees the most pressing behavior they need to change. But “if you tell someone they have to stop smoking, and for whatever reason they’re not ready to quit, you might miss the chance to help them with their stress or their sleep or their eating habits,” says Brian Dolan, chief strategy and partner integration officer at Rally Health.
Modern programs strike a healthy balance, offering targeted options while still giving employees a sense of control and empowerment. “They encourage employees to engage with the programs that matter the most to them,” says Pamela Rich, senior manager of workforce well-being at the National Business Group on Health. “And that greater choice makes employees feel like their employer is giving them the ability to improve their lives.”
Modern programs strike a healthy balance, offering targeted options while still giving employees a sense of control and empowerment.
At Rally®, for instance, our new Progression feature allows every user to focus on the specific goals that are most important to them, and to easily set up a plan that reflects those goals. Our recommendation engine serves up the most relevant Rally Missions along with other programs for their goals, and allows users to track their progress. Dictating an employee’s wellness journey can create resentment. But giving people that kind of choice and personalized guidance creates a sense of empowerment — and breeds better engagement.
2. Emotional Intelligence
Most of today’s workforce knows that healthy habits matter. Yet a study of nearly 5,000 people found that less than 3 percent of Americans live a healthy lifestyle, defined as not smoking, exercising for at least 150 minutes a week, having a diet score in the top 40 percent on the Healthy Eating Index, and having a body fat percentage under 20 percent for men or 30 percent for women. Other research has found that only one in 10 Americans get enough fruits and vegetables, and 80 percent don’t get the recommended exercise.
Why the disconnect between what we know is good for us and what we actually do? Blame emotions, said Ichiro Kawachi, PhD, chairman of the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, who presented at the Innovation Summit.
“We associate behavior with reasoning and rational thought, but part of our brain that’s involved in the decision-making process operates subconsciously and is influenced by emotions,” he says. If we were robots, maintaining healthy habits would be as easy as a daily checklist. But humans are a lot more messy, “and behavior is much more complex and irrational than we’ve thought in the past,” says Kawachi.
Rather than appealing purely to the employee’s rational side, wellness programs must use a mix of emotional tools: novelty, competition, games, feel-good philanthropy.
In a six-month study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, people who had their pedometers tied into a team game boosted their daily walking distance by nearly one mile over those who were simply encouraged to track their steps. The collaboration, small prizes, and moments of victory did more to get participants up and moving than dry stats about heart health and exercise. At Rally, we're big fans of this approach. Our Challenges feature actively encourages people to move more by creating fun virtual walks where they can track their steps and earn Rally Coins, which can be exchanged for discounts on movie tickets, fitness gear, and more.
3. A Cultivated Culture
Health programs can’t thrive in a bubble. “It’s about culture,” says Matt Shaffer, SVP, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. “And people who feel that their employer takes care of them are in a curated culture. Those employers don’t just push communications from a third party with no integration and hope that it resonates.”
Indeed, research shows that when on-site services are available, whether that’s a wellness coordinator, fitness facility, yoga room, or health coach, “satisfaction in an employer wellness program dramatically increases,” says Perlmutter. But cultivating a culture of wellness doesn’t have to mean big-ticket initiatives like building a gym, of course. Employers can host health fairs, sponsor employee bike rides, create private social media groups around healthy activities, or swap out the usual chips-and-soda vending machines for more healthy snacks in the break room.
One crucial culture element that benefits leaders can’t afford to overlook? Management buy-in. Because while C-suite executives may be the ones to greenlight a program, it’s the managers who can be most influential in actually engaging employees. So, in addition to getting your CEO on board, talk to department heads about how they can share initiative news and inspire the troops. As Perlmutter says, “Improving the employee’s wellness experience really happens at that person-to-person level.”
Getting the Word Out
Roughly two-thirds of employees who don’t participate in wellness programs cite a lack of awareness as the major reason. But that’s not because benefits leaders aren’t communicating enough — in some ways, it’s the opposite.
“They have so many things to communicate to employees — benefits, copays, the spring company picnic, power outages, work changes — that employees reach message fatigue,” says Rally’s Steve Olin. An announcement about a new wellness program gets a glance or is skipped entirely.
To jump-start engagement from Day One, Real Appeal encourages a three-pronged approach:
· Time It: Plan how your rollout fits in with your overall promotions calendar, so employees aren’t hearing this news at a particularly busy time.
· Finesse It: Program launches aren’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Think about what’s most relevant to your company’s culture and adjust as needed.
· Trumpet It: Want to really signal that this initiative is worthwhile? Have the CEO send an e-blast. When the C-suite unveils a new wellness program, participation and engagement tends to be markedly higher.
“With employee communications, keep the strategy simple and think about the “from” line as much as the subject line,” says Olin. “To maximize your open rate, messages need to come from someone in a position of authority or someone they trust.”
About Rally Health
Rally is the only truly integrated health care platform that unites benefits, wellness, medical care, and rewards in a single, intuitive experience. It is the proven choice implemented by some of the most respected companies in the US. More than 200,000 employers, including 45 percent of the Fortune 500, offer Rally to their employees. If you’d like to learn more about how to drive greater engagement with your employees, contact email@example.com.