Skip to main content

How to use incentives to boost engagement in your corporate health & wellness program

By 11/01/2013November 21st, 2018No Comments

What incentives work best for workplace health and wellness programs?

You’ve probably got a small budget for promotion and incentives. The boss might have suggested free drink bottles for all, or maybe a gift voucher at the end. Other helpful colleagues might have suggested a prize for signing up, or even using disincentives such as penalties for non-participation.

How do you know which incentives will actually work? And how can you tell if those incentives are actually making a difference?

Here we outline which kinds of incentives work, how to apply them and what to avoid.

What’s the best incentive?

Let’s get this one out of the way first: The single most effective incentive is not an external reward.

The best incentive is intrinsic motivation. That is, your employees need to be genuinely motivated within themselves.

For optimal participation and engagement, participants have to want it. They have to really see a direct, personal and highly emotional reason for taking part.

The bad news is you can’t buy this with cash prizes or free drink bottles.

The good news is it doesn’t cost a lot of money.

It’s all about WIIFM – that old marketing adage of What’s In It For Me. Show your employees need to see how the program will impact on their every day life. Show them how it will solve their everyday problems.

Talk about the benefits of the program, ideally in the words of employees who have previously taken part. “I feel good in my body again”, “I’m sleeping so much better”, “I have more energy to spend on my family now”, “My spouse says I look fabulous”.

Talk about the benefits at every opportunity, every time you talk about the program informally and formally. Mention them when they’re filling in their health risk appraisal (HRA) or personal health assessment (PHA);  mention them in reminder and feedback emails.

But let’s assume you’re doing this, you’re already talking about the benefits in every point of contact. There’s still a core group of people who just aren’t engaged. How can you incentivise them? And should you use carrot or stick?

Let’s start with what not to do.

Don’t incentivise participation over engagement

Many organisations fall into the trap of using incentives to encourage employees to fill in their HRA or PHA.

This is a sticky trap, because it seems to work. Both incentives and disincentives, or penalties for non-compliance, can push up your participation rates quite effectively.

Here’s a case study of one organisation who offered different both “carrot” and “stick” incentives to encourage employees to participate and fill in their HRA .

(This is a US company. The Premium is for health insurance).

Looks pretty good, huh? You want to get yourself one of those programs. Executive would be thrilled with those numbers!

Actually, no. These figures show people filled in their HRAs. They don’t show behaviour change.


So how do you incentivise behaviour change?

Dr Steven Aldana and Dr Troy Adams, founders of WellSteps, identified common elements which set apart the most effective incentive programs.

 1. The incentives produce changes in behavior

Filling in an HRA is not a behaviour change. It’s a data collection process. If you really want your program to result in a healthier, more productive workforce, you need to use your incentives to draw people through the program.

One effective way is a points-based system. Participants earn points for each activity they complete, and whenever they report back on what they’ve achieved during the week. The more they engage, the more points they earn, the more rewards they receive.

The best incentive systems also show participants what more they need to do to reach the next level of rewards or the next incentive prize.

2. The incentives are easy

There’s no point creating a beautifully detailed incentives program if it’s too complicated for participants to follow.

Here’s a screenshot of a highly detailed incentives system from a US company.

Your busy employees don’t have time for this. These incentives actually form a barrier to participation.

Here’s a screenshot from Healthworks’ new Rewards program:

It’s simple, quick, and participants can immediately see points they earn for each action.

Make sure your incentive program is easy to understand, easy to do, easy to track and easy for you to administer.

 3. The incentives are integrated into the program

Handing out a free drink bottle on the launch of your program, or offering a gift card right at the end will not go far in encouraging  people towards real engagement.

Incentives should be a clear and consistent part of every step in the program, and they should lead and encourage participants onto the next step.

Then, participants feel they have truly earnt their rewards, and the rewards are valued.

4. The incentives are fun

Don’t be too earnest about it. Make your incentives fun and pleasurable. Make the incentives appealing, but also make the whole process appealing – the daily or weekly logging in and checking off activities.


Author Healthworks

More posts by Healthworks