New clients always want to know the ideal length of time for a wellness campaign. It depends… on the topic, audience, time of year, frequency, previous experience with campaigns, and the goal (participation, outcomes, goodwill, etc.). Sometimes that response produces a heavy sigh on the other end of the line — they just want it to be easy.
But the dirty little secret in wellness is that changing ingrained health behaviors of individuals and populations is hard. Some wellness managers unknowingly make it even harder on themselves with programming decisions based on ease of implementation. And uninformed (or unscrupulous) vendors can make the problem much worse by offering up the “simple” solution, which really means the answer you want to hear so they get the sale. Whether the campaign has any lasting impact is secondary, if even a serious consideration at all.
At Health Enhancement Systems our wellness campaigns range from 4-12 weeks. And with the exception of seasonal campaigns (such as Walktober) we think 4 weeks is almost always too brief. We try to persuade clients to increase it to at least 6 weeks — the point when participants can actually tell a difference in how they feel and confidence in their ability to sustain the behavior. Follow-up surveys with thousands of participants over the years have clearly demonstrated that at 4 weeks, participants feel they’re just “starting to get into it” but then it’s over.
If a vendor tells you a wellness challenge needs to be only 4 weeks because people lose interest after that, it’s because whatever they’re selling isn’t very good. Yes, there will be some drop-off at 4 weeks, more at 6, and more at 8. But those who do stick with it — because it’s a good program, not because they’ve been bribed or browbeaten — have a much greater chance of maintaining the behavior and continuing to move toward their long-term goals. In general, if the purpose of your wellness program is to improve health, opt for longer campaigns. If it’s to get people to fill out a registration form, opt for shorter campaigns.
So what’s the outer limit? Again, it depends. But if you’ve created or purchased a program that’s fun, engaging, challenging, and offers a chance for people to learn and grow together in teams, buddies, business units, or some other naturally affiliated group, you can push it to 12 weeks and still get 60% or more completion. And you don’t have to promise everyone a gift card to do it. In fact, that or other financial incentives/disincentives will make high participation more difficult in future programs, because you’ve shifted the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic. Anyone who has been in this field for more than a couple years knows that for someone to stick with a behavior change, the desire has to come from within. It can’t be coerced.
After 12 weeks, even the most interesting, exciting wellness campaign can get a little stale. And if participants have been fully engaged to this point, they’re comfortable maintaining the behavior on their own and are ready to move on to something new.
Have you had success maintaining participation in wellness campaigns beyond 12 weeks? If so, we would love to share your secret with our readers. Send your contact information and a few details to editor at hesonline.com.
Dean Witherspoon is CEO and founder of HES and has been the managing editor of the Well-Being Practitioner (formerly the Health Promotion Practitioner) since 1992. He leads the most creative team in wellness, serving organizations worldwide with best-in-class workplace wellness campaigns.