The Failure of Incentive-Driven Wellness Programs to Transform the Health of the U.S. Workforce

Countless public health studies have demonstrated that the declining health of the American worker is one of the most critical business problems affecting the competitiveness and the profitability of companies. To address it, companies spend millions of dollars each year on wellness programs that are built on incentivizing employees to make better lifestyle choices, from joining a gym to improving their eating habits. While these wellness initiatives can provide some short-term benefits, studies show that programs that rely on financial incentives to encourage healthier choices fail to generate long-term positive behavioral changes.

What's missing from the conventional approaches to fostering worker health is any strategic, comprehensive and evidence-based program that taps into the competitive spirit of workers as a mechanism to spur personal responsibility and better lifestyle choices. For employees, it's the difference between a passive or active engagement in their health. For businesses, it's the difference between greater employee involvement in health initiatives or rising long-term healthcare costs.

To achieve this shift, companies must approach the challenge of improving employee health as just that -- a challenge. It's a challenge that they have no choice but to win if they expect to remain competitive in the global economy. And the key to accomplishing this is to introduce engagement, fun and gamefication into their wellness programs, so that employees want to take control of their own health.

Long-term improvements in workforce health have eluded employers who rely on short-term incentives to entice employees into better habits. But healthy behavioral change is possible when programs incorporate three basic elements that every company has: competition, teamwork and online engagement. The competitive drive exists in virtually everyone, most companies either have or are working towards a culture that fosters teamwork, and computers and smartphones are as much a part of the American office as a stapler.

Company-based health programs that make smart use of these three elements tap into the undercurrent of competitiveness that exists within U.S. workplaces. As employees spur each other on, a healthy new culture rooted in personal responsibility increases both engagement and morale across the organization. And the online component provides yet another touch point for the company to sustain the friendly culture of competition.

Make no mistake, this does not involve simply implementing a basic walking program by handing out pedometers and telling staff to track how much they walk for a few weeks. Integrating competition, teamwork and online engagement into a broader lifestyle modification program will result in employees taking responsibility for their own behavior and developing new diet and activity habits. Companies around the world learned long ago that these structured programs demonstrate high worker participation, with employees reporting a significant improvement in their health habits and lower healthcare costs.

An independent study was conducted in 2011 by the Foundation for Chronic Disease Prevention in the Workplace (FCDP) of employees who participated in The Global Corporate Challenge, a wellness and behavior modification program. The research found that 53 percent of participants lost weight, with an average loss of 6.2 pounds. The study also demonstrated clear proof of increases in employee energy levels, quality of sleep and ability to handle stress. Companies that participated reported clear benefits as well, with 52 percent reporting increased productivity and 75 percent reporting increased office morale.

This research is just one of many studies demonstrating that companies do not need carrots or sticks to effect a positive transformation in the health of their employees. Instead, a program that is rooted in friendly competition and offers an engaging experience will motivate employees to make positive lifestyle choices both at and away from the office. In contrast, programs that offer workers cash to do the right thing undermine the messages of trust and responsibility that are essential to any vibrant and competitive company culture.

With an increasingly unhealthy workforce severely impacting their competitive strength, and ample proof that wellness programs have failed to generate long-term benefits, it is time for American businesses to stop trying to find better incentives and instead start shaping better behaviors.