Are incentives a dying fad?

‘Dangling carrots’ for wellness doesn't work over the long term


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Often I hear employers complain about the continuing challenge of allocating funds to cover wellness incentives, like gift cards for weight loss challenges, cash incentives for employees who complete health risk assessments and gym discounts, to name a few.

Years ago, I was working as a certified personal trainer when the drill sergeant mentality was popular. The idea was to push people into making several major changes at once. Although many people experienced fast results and participated in the famous “before” and “after photos,” I followed my intuition and stuck with the belief that small, consistent changes with a major focus on the individual learning to self-motivate would be more beneficial long-term. 

Several studies have shown this to be true. Often, when people make dramatic changes to their behaviors based on external pressure, those changes end up being short-lived and their old, unhealthy patterns creep back into their lives. The bigger problem with this approach is people become very discouraged and their self-confidence suffers in the process, resulting in more unhealthy behaviors.

I believe the same holds true for wellness incentives. It’s a bubble that is going to burst, and I have already seen this problem happening in many businesses.

The human body is designed to innately take care of itself through internal motivation. Yes, we may sabotage our efforts by making many unhealthy decisions at times; however, there is nothing more powerful than our natural instinct to make the right decisions for longevity, the choices that will help us stay on a path to health.

Incentives, however, are an external lure that, over time, can also be viewed as a bribe, bringing short-lived pleasure. These “dangling carrots” often take the important focus away from employees making healthy choices for the right reasons, which is much more likely to result in the changes being sustainable. 

A significant problem I’ve noticed is that, over time, employees want more and more from the incentives to make it “worth their while” to participate. 

Years ago, I worked for an organization in which I was the health coach for 14 supermarket chain stores. Each store had 200 to 300 employees and, due to the recession, the wellness incentive budget had been cut, and there were rumors that the incentive budget was going to be eliminated completely. 

Some employees wondered how the situation would be handled, as though the oxygen was going to be taken from the building. This mentality was part of the problem with incentives. The focus was not on their individual health but on an “instant” and very small reward for temporary healthy behaviors.

Eventually, the incentive budget was removed and I was the only person who, at first, was happy with the decision. I educated the employees on the value of true wellness and my beliefs that incentives are, most often, an unhealthy distraction from a wellness program. I explained that health and wellness initiatives should be fun and welcoming and the focus should be on the priceless incentive of avoiding illness.

The result of this change, along with teaching employees the true value of wellness, resulted in an increase in participation in wellness initiatives. Instead of not participating due to incentives being eliminated, employees were drawn to a program that was based on a fun and welcoming atmosphere, combined with a focus on each person’s optimal health and wellness.

As Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” The same applies to wellness programs. When a wellness program is based on employees having a fun and positive experience, in addition to receiving educational and motivational information absent of incentives, they will be more likely to participate and make those small, yet very important and sustainable changes to improve their health. And this will result in reduced health-related costs and increased productivity for the employer.

A better use of wellness funds are items that are given to all employees and that also get back to the basics. For example, buying each employee a quality water bottle or ordering in a healthy lunch for all employees. These actions will help employees feel appreciated while promoting wellness and eliminating the dangling carrots that sometimes only benefit a few temporarily. 

Carol Phillips, a Manchester-based health and wellness expert and author of “52 Simple Ways to Health,” can be reached through her website at HealthDesignNH.com. 

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