5 Ways to Make Your Corporate Wellness Program Irresistible

With the Right Approach, You Can Attract Non-believers

Coworkers taking the stairs
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Corporate wellness is too easy to hate and too in-your-face to ignore. It’s the Justin Bieber of business jargon, the Jaden Smith of semantics, a teenage buzzword that’s more of an eye roller than a heartthrob—especially to your most skeptical employees, men and the elderly.

The term lost years of credibility thanks to programs that equated wellness with the completion of health assessments which served the breakthrough purpose of telling people stuff they already knew.

But what if wellness became the most electrifying part of your company culture? Before discovering the path, be warned: you may have to take a pie to the face. You might end up looking like Mr. Clean, with a shaven head.

But on the flip side, you may get to drop your business nemesis into an ice-cold dunk tank. And you might see a spark of energy and camaraderie become a blaze that reinvigorates your company.

If you’re willing to push your comfort zone, here’s the secret (drum roll, please): corporate wellness needs to be relevant and fun. Those two levers motivate even the most resistant employees. Here’s how you win them over.

Force Nothing

Most wellness programs force employees to do the same (typically trite) activities. But Jack, your 64-year-old finance manager, does not want to have a running competition with Brad, the 23-year-old coding whiz who was an All-American cross-country runner.

“Great,” thinks Jack, “I haven't run in 10 years and they want me competing with Carl Lewis over there. Screw it.”  Why would Jack beat up his knees when he needs them for his passion, golf?

Your golfers might not want to run, and your cross-country runners sure as heck don’t want to walk. To feel motivated, people must choose activities they like, or at least, feel capable of doing.

You can create multiple programs around running, walking, yoga, swimming, weightlifting, skiing, weight loss, golf, and just about any other activity. But the most fitness-happy people, your power users, need a way to enroll their coworkers, which brings us to the next point.

Use Competition to Create Peer Pressure

Human beings are hardwired for games. We don’t necessarily care about their outcome (not all of us, at least); the experience of competition is intrinsically rewarding. If your employees can customize competitions around their interests, they’ll lasso in their less ambitious coworkers.

Compare these hypothetical invitations from Matt, the IT department’s fitness nut:

  • “Hey Jim, for this corporate wellness requirement, or whatever, our department is supposed to do fitness stuff together. Want to maybe bike to Chipotle tomorrow for lunch? It’s not a long ride, and it would count.”
  • “Hey, Jim. We’re challenging the marketing department to a cycling competition. The winners get to choose work ‘uniforms’ for the losers, who must wear them in the office for a whole week. To win, we need to pedal more miles than the marketers over the next month. Would you help us? I want to see the marketing bros wearing ballerina outfits and makeup to work.”

    The first offer implied that wellness is a pointless, checkbox requirement. The second offer has objectives, rules, and thrilling stakes. Your participation matters. Will you doom your team to strut around in ballerina outfits, or step up?

    Rely on Trackers, Not Self-Reported Data

    While an unbreakable honor system is super, in theory, it’s a cluster-jam in reality. You get disgruntled contestants who think, “There’s no way that Jane took 28,000 steps today!”

    People lose the motivation to compete when the game seems rigged. And worse, sometimes people cheat. They’ll attach their Fitbit to the dog and take him to the park for a long game of catch.

    To prevent this poor sportsmanship, use devices to validate activity (software can tell if you put it on your dog). There are plenty of reliable activity trackers available, and even scales that validate private weigh-ins.

    Whatever you do, ensure that people use the same trackers and apps. Each device produces slightly different results that can skew a competition. If you must subsidize 100 Fitbits, do it. When the employer has skin in the game, employees show greater commitment.

    Level the Playing the Field

    Face it. No one wants to compete if the same people win every time. But that’s what you get when you have a steps-based contest, the most popular type of competition. Steps-based contests jip the tall, those who do non-impact activities, and the less-than-fit who can’t run for miles on end.

    Pick a fairer metric. Time, for instance, levels the game. Jack could spend as much time walking (on a golf course) as Brad spends running, and Brad would get far more steps, but they’d get the same amount of time. And isn’t that the point of the program—getting everyone more active and taking steps toward healthier lifestyles?

    Up the Stakes

    If you run the company or lead the wellness program, put your own behind on the line. Bribing people with gift cards and cash doesn’t work. It’s about guts, glory, fun, and bragging rights.

    To that end, some CEOs play undercover boss in step competitions, where everyone on the digital leaderboard is anonymous. In one case, any employee who beat the boss got to throw a pie in his face, and the boss pied anyone who lost to him. In a similar competition, employees shaved the CEO’s head—he was in his 60s and had a full head of hair.

    Challenging another company is a deviously effective way to rally the least motivated employees.

    If you want to offer more concrete rewards, a water bottle or backpack stamped with 1st Place, [Company] Hiking Competition means more than a gift card. Experiential rewards are also meaningful. A sunrise hot air balloon ride is way more memorable than $100 at TGI Friday’s.

    Ready or Not

    In the 1970s, health gurus popularized a concept called readiness to change. They argued that people only participate in wellness once they feel ready—whatever that means. It’s hogwash when applied to wellness. People need a jolt; they need peer pressure and competition to give them a kick in the hiney. They need activities and challenges that are relevant, fun, and fair.

    Initially, men and older folks may roll their eyes at your wellness program—but have patience. Like middle-aged fathers at a Justin Bieber concert, they’ll start tapping their feet and mumbling along, in spite of themselves. As the pies are thrown, heads are shaven, and ballerina outfits are worn, the holdouts will break into dance.