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  • Andrew

Should you throw out your "Health Calendar"?

Sunday April 7th was World Health Day. Are you healthier because of it? Did your workforce come to work Monday in better shape than they left on Friday?


Gee I'm glad they sneak it in early in the year - ahem... before football season - so we don't have to think about health on a Sunday where too many sit inactive on the couch drinking beer and mindlessly consuming high calorie processed garbage. So thoughtful to have it in April, when hopefully, it's one of the first nice Spring days and we're actually compelled to venture outside and be somewhat active!


I joke... Please don't get me wrong. I've dedicated my working career to promoting healthy living, and I appreciate any time we can put health front-of-mind. But my fear and frustration is that we've lost sight of the forest for the trees. I just counted at least 175 "official" health observances (various days, weeks, and months) for this year. While I am in no way suggesting any of these are unworthy, what I'm saying is: they've lost their luster. Not to mention how meaningless they become when they are sandwiched between other ridiculous national observances like National Pancake Day or National Donut Day. What am I to think when Monday is National Running Day and Tuesday is stuff your face with donuts day?


Health is built in more than a day. While saying that seems obvious, when you look at the structure of many well-intentioned wellness programs, they simply read like a health calendar. They are built on campaigns, promoting one targeted element of health after another, often without clear alignment. The result? On paper, a "comprehensive wellness program" which is exhausting and inefficient for your benefits team to execute - "OK, running day is out of the way, what's next... oh, mental health week. Great, how can we promote that to get better visibility this year?" - but practically they are likely doing very little in terms of actually changing your employee's health behavior.


The curse of most wellness program models is lack of continuous engagement. This has lead to an over-reliance on incentives. According to a recent article I saw 86% of employers are using wellness incentives with an average value now approaching $800 annually. Are you kidding me? I'm sorry, but if you need to pay your employees hundreds of dollars to participate in a wellness program, then you have the wrong program! If employees aren't participating without you paying them - then they clearly aren't getting any inherent value from the program.


Don't increase your incentive - change your program!


Financial incentives are a band-aid. They will boost engagement short term, but they are not sustainable and are not likely to lead to meaningful and significant behavior change.

When wellness programs are campaign or "calendar of events" based, incentive driven, and primarily self-directed (i.e. require the employee to proactively opt-in, sign-up, log in, download an app, count or collect points etc) then you will always struggle. This is not providing employees with the resources to improve their health - you are making health arduous - something extra they have to do or fit in to already busy routines. At best they simply don't appreciate it. At worst, they resent it.


Instead of campaigns and calendars, seek a model which doesn't require employees to opt-in or participate outside of their normal routines. Instead, inject regular and progressive health promotion and education into your operational work flow and environment. Engage people where you already have a captive audience: at work.


Smart program structures can boost engagement frequency, which then opens the door for more meaningful progressive education and long term sustained behavior change (read: more inherent value for both your people AND your business). And guess what? You don't have to waste money on incentives to do it.


According to industry data from Willis Towers Watson, the average participation in things like annual screenings (with incentives) is around 50% of a work population, whereas participation in more meaningful health interventions like lifestyle coaching is less than 20% of a work population. Are you likely to get huge shifts in group health from traditional programs and platforms with those types of figures?


What if you could get DOUBLE the outcomes, for LESS THAN HALF of the investment most companies spend on incentives?

Compare that to a manufacturing company we work with (a work environment traditional wellness models struggle to gain traction with) which has had a third of their total population reduce a measured chronic health risk in the past 2 years. They've also had 96% of their population engaged in the program, with the average person engaged at least 4 times during the past year. Yes, they do still have an incentive for an annual screening, but only 60% of the population earned the incentive - while 96% were involved on an ongoing basis. This suggests that for many people, the incentive wasn't the driving force. And for those that it was, it only accounts for one of the average of 4 contacts during the year. The incentive was not the impetus for the majority of recorded participation. How much did this program cost? Probably less than a quarter of most company's incentive.


People don't want to be coerced. People don't want more hoops to jump through. People want to work for a company with a meaningful purpose and one who values their people. Campaigns and random health topics that jump all over the calendar won't shift people's behavior. A program which achieves greater consistency in engagement can.