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7 common pitfalls of corporate wellness programmes

James A. Martin | June 17, 2016
Wellness leaders from Fitbit, SAP, Bank of America and the state of South Carolina share insight and advice based on lessons learned from their organizations' early fitness-tracker based corporate wellness programs.

Employee wellness programs that use activity trackers, such as Fitbits, are still fairly new. Many modern organizations simply learn as they go, regularly trying different health strategies and fitness challenges to motivate employees to take better care of themselves. The rewards of corporate wellness and fitness programs are well-documented, and they include reduced healthcare costs and absenteeism, as well as increased employee loyalty and satisfaction. But what about the missteps organizations make along the way?

Good intentions don't always lead to positive outcomes, as some organizations with activity tracker-focused fitness and wellness programs can attest. Here are seven actual challenges and potential pitfalls real organizations faced with their wellness and fitness programs, along with the related lessons they learned.

1. Team wellness challenges vs. individual competitions

Indiana University Health, a healthcare system partnered with the Indiana University School of Medicine, used free trips to Chicago and the Caribbean as awards in an employee wellness challenge. To enter the drawing for the trips, participants had to log 10,000 or more steps per day using their Fitbits, according to Marci Cooper, the organization's employee wellness manager. Unfortunately, the staff quickly accused others of cheating, because some people claimed to have logged more than 40,000 steps in one day. "The teeth really came out," Cooper says.

The lesson learned? Team challenges work better than individual challenges.

2. Communication is critical — and easy to get wrong

At the recent Fitbit Captivate 2016 conference in San Francisco, nearly every wellness program leader we interviewed for this story said they find it challenging to effectively communicate to employees how fitness programs and challenges work, the related benefits, and the participation guidelines.

Email seems like a natural channel for program updates, but employee inboxes everywhere are already full, and getting workers to read wellness newsletters can be difficult, according to Jason Russell, director of the North America Total Rewards employee benefits program for SAP America.

Russell recommends keeping email communications brief, about a page or less. And they should be easy to read and interesting. For example, employees are more likely to get or stay engaged when newsletters highlight other employees or executives that participate in fitness programs. SAP America's wellness emails sometimes include brief interviews with workers about how they stay fit, modeled after the bios featured regularly in Runner's World magazine, Russell says.

Whenever wellness leaders or representatives communicate about fitness program events, they should pay close attention to everything they say, according to Julie Bonsall, workplace wellbeing supervisor for the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (RTA). "One word, used the wrong way, can throw people off," she says. As an example, Bonsall cites a poster that promoted an RTA wellness screening event and contained language about confidentiality. The intent was to convey that results from screenings would be kept confidential. However, many employees misinterpreted the message and assumed others — their peers — would also be present at the screenings. Few staffers showed up due to confidentiality concerns.


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