One of the greatest challenges to implementing workplace wellbeing activities is enticing employees to participate.1 If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Britain’s Healthiest Workplace 2021 Workplace Wellbeing survey found that just 22% of employees know about the wellbeing supports that were available to them and less than a third of those who are aware choose to participate. It is not surprising then, that we are seeing more organisations turning to incentives as a means of trying to increase participation rates.
In the USA, where employers are responsible for health plans for their workforces, the use of both incentives and penalties to try to increase engagement with wellbeing initiatives is widespread, with 86% of organisations offering incentive or penalty.2 However, some studies suggest that incentives have a marginal impact on participation.
The answer to the participation puzzle does not lie either, in simply increasing the size of the incentive on offer – there is evidence that larger incentives do not result in a proportionate increase in participation rates. One USA study for example, found that employers offering rewards of more than $100, a common threshold, reported participation rates of 51%, compared with 36% participation for those with smaller rewards.3 As for penalties, while these may have a modest impact on participation, creating an environment driven by fear of adverse consequences, is frankly the opposite of workplace wellbeing and thus counter-productive to the intention.
So, while rewards can be a great motivator when used correctly, and modest incentives may help to increase participation slightly, the truth is that employees are more likely to participate in wellbeing initiatives if they believe that their organisation’s motives for offering these are genuine and that their employer has their best interests in mind in addition to those of the business. Incentives may be viewed by employees as coercive if issues such as unmanageable workloads or cultural norms around unhealthy practices like working through lunch breaks and outside contracted hours are left unaddressed.
Realistic expectations are also important – although most workplaces are likely to have a small group of wellbeing enthusiasts who will participate in many initiatives, it is highly unlikely that all employees will be interested in all activities. A well-designed variety of easily accessible support solutions that appeal to a variety of interests is important, as is a range of incentives that appeal to the different motivations that employees will have for wanting to engage with wellbeing initiatives. Key to this is taking the time at the outset to understand what employees want, need and what drives them.
An example of an organisation that uses incentives is Adobe, who offer employees reimbursement for a broad range of wellbeing activities. However, Adobe has deliberately chosen not to connect participation in wellbeing activities with Adobe’s health insurance plan. Instead, employees are supported to tap into their intrinsic motivation to participate, in recognition that this is likely to produce more sustainable results. In addition, Adobe refers to its physical and emotional wellbeing program as a “culture maker, rather than a money saver”.4
Adobe’s commitment to wellbeing doesn’t end there – employees also have access to wellbeing apps and flexible working conditions. The company has also implemented a more informal, “check in” process for managing performance in recognition that that the traditional performance appraisal system had a negative impact on staff morale, did little to improve performance and was an unnecessary drain on organisational resources. The result has been happier employees, improved retention and increased productivity.5 The success of this type of holistic approach – where incentives, a range of wellbeing support and broader cultural and workplace process change initiatives are all pillars of a broader wellbeing strategy is also evidenced by Adobe’ numerous ‘Best Workplaces’ accolades.6
So, when we consider what type of incentives we might offer, we need to step back to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve? Are there certain behaviours we want to encourage? Are there certain cultural elements we are trying to foster? It is likely that incentives will indeed increase our chances of success?
1 Belinda Liversedge to British Safety Council, 15 October, 2019, https://www.britsafe.org/publications/safety-management-magazine/safety-management-magazine/2018/employers-challenged-over-healthiest-workplace-findings/.
2 Thomas Beaton, “86% of Employers Use Financial Incentives in Wellness Programs,” xtelligent Healthcare Media, https://healthpayerintelligence.com/news/86-of-employers-use-financial-incentives-in-wellness-programs.
3 Soeren Mattke et al., Incentives for Workplace Wellness Programs: They Increase Employee Participation, but Building a Better Program Is Just as Effective (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015).
4 Alan Kohll to Forbes, 15 October, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2019/03/05/how-adobe-puts-the-employee-at-the-center-of-their-global-well-being-program/?sh=ce707d6189a5.
5 David Burkus, “How Adobe Scrapped Its Performance Review System and Why It Worked,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidburkus/2016/06/01/how-adobe-scrapped-its-performance-review-system-and-why-it-worked/?sh=770c944455e8.
6 Great Place to Work, “Great Place to Work – Adobe,” https://www.greatplacetowork.co.uk/workplace/item/1942/Adobe.