Make Workplace Wellness Challenges Work for Your Organization

Make Workplace Wellness Challenges Work for Your Organization

According to the Wellness Councils of America, more than 80 percent of American businesses with at least 50 employees offer some type of health promotion program. This is an excellent sign that employers understand that helping employees stay healthy is good business.

However, not all health promotion programs are created equal, and the downside is that the most common "wellness-related benefit" provided by employers is simply access to online wellness information. I'd argue that it is not enough for an employer to offer online educational programs only and expect to see reductions in healthcare costs or improvements in employee morale.

 Challenges Work for Your Organization
 Challenges Work for Your Organization

Employers both large and small need to do more for the health of their employees and the well-being of their companies. Why? The World Health Organization has identified a lack of physical activity as the fourth-highest preventable cause of death in the world. Here in the U.S., the corporate workforce is not only getting older but also a more sedentary-a sure recipe for increased healthcare claims unless employees are motivated to make better choices.

A recent national survey by the Principal Financial Group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, found that employers who invested in wellness programs showed medical costs fall by an average of $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness, while absenteeism costs fell by an average of $2.73. The Principal study is not alone; in fact, countless studies have shown that healthy and fit employees are more productive, call in sick less often and visit the doctor less frequently.

Healthier employees are happier, too. That's good for morale and good for the bottom line. Michael Johnson, an organizational behavior specialist, and professor at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business points to research that suggests that employee morale is one of the last remaining competitive advantages of organizations. Those that do well-managing people and morale also tend to do well financially.

This could explain why there are a growing number of human resource departments interested in employer-sponsored "wellness challenges." Wellness challenges typically involve healthy engagements between employees, either individually or as part of a team. They are a fun and effective way to increase physical activity in the workplace while helping employees manage their weight and fostering a sense of company camaraderie at the same time.

Fortunately, wellness challenges have come a long way since the creation of the President's Physical Fitness Challenge (how many of us remember being forced to do sit-ups and sprints in gym class?). And while The Biggest Loser makes for compelling television, few real-life challenges involve cursing, screaming or crying in the name of wellness-nor should they?

Wellness challenges are effective for one very simple reason: 

Social accountability and peer support are highly motivational. A recent study cited in the Wall Street Journal and published in the journal Obesity showed that peers' attitudes and behavior are linked to success in weight loss.

In other words, fun and friendly competition goes a long way in helping people make a change or reach a specific goal. In the workplace, the keys to success lie in planning and implementation.

Companies considering running their own workplace wellness challenges are advised to keep the following in mind:

1. Involve the entire workforce and their families. Encourage upper-level management to participate and to set the tone that it is important (and fun!) for all team members to be involved and engaged.

2. Incorporate team-based challenges that build camaraderie and morale. Creating teams and competing against other colleagues or departments provides a sense of friendly competition, and being held accountable by teammates provides extra motivation for participants.

3. Allow employees to perform and track a variety of physical activities. Instead of expecting everyone to bike or run, for example, allow participants to include hiking, yoga, dance, swimming, and other activities that improve fitness. As most large organizations have employees with diverse interests and abilities, this will engage a broader percentage of a company's population and will reduce the number of employees who don't participate because they don't enjoy or aren't able to perform specific activities.

4. Offer creative incentives and prizes that also revolve around health and wellness so the overall message of health is not lost in the reward. Make sure that awards are meaningful and desirable, i.e., not another water bottle or t-shirt with your company logo.

5. Ensure consistent promotion before and during the event to engage as many employees as possible. Use email blasts, promotional posters, onsite registration events, etc.

6. Make it fun and easy for employees to get and stay involved. For example, give them an online platform to log activities, a record number of steps taken, track weight loss, etc.

7. Show a commitment to long-term wellness, i.e., establish a wellness calendar and give employees a chance to participate in company-sponsored challenges throughout the year.

8. Consider contributing to a local cause based on employee participation in the wellness challenge.

Providing employees an opportunity to help local causes while working to improve their own health is a powerful motivator and morale booster. (For example, almost 50% of the participants in the 2011 LifeBalance Healthy Holidays Challenge, which included a charitable component, indicated that a donation to a local charitable organization was a contributing factor to their participation).

Let's face it-employees know how hard it can be to get fit and stay motivated on their own. Wellness challenges allow companies to invigorate their workforce while improving productivity and reigning in health care costs. That's a challenge we should all embrace.


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