by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

I attended a conference recently where a vendor and their client discussed a year-long wellness campaign model that produced an overall (signup) rate of just under 50%. That’s a pretty impressive statistic for a voluntary program, particularly when talking about larger populations — in this case, approximately 12,000 eligible employees.

Halfway through the presentation, they got into the incentive model. Among other enticements, it included $1 to an Amazon gift card for each social connection participants made. The average number of connections? 53. For this portion of the program, the organization paid more than a quarter million dollars based on my quick calculations.

And for what? About 30 minutes of research would have revealed that after 8 or 9 social connections for health behavior support, there’s no discernible difference in behavior change. They easily spent more than $200,000 on incentives than needed, but because the signup rate was high (driven by the incentive), the program was deemed a “success.”

But the real disappointment here isn’t the wasted dollars. After all, for a company with 12,000 employees, $200K down the drain isn’t tragic. What’s disheartening is even in mature wellness programs with seasoned managers there’s the misperception that signups equal success. If the engagement rate had been stellar, you could make a case. But it wasn’t; less than 25% participated in all 4 quarters, despite even more incentives offered along the way.

And the feedback of those who did make it through the entire year was tepid at best. So now a company with a solid wellness program before the year-long, incentive-laden campaign has trained employees to expect to be paid to do something they should want to do for themselves. They have, in effect, made it more difficult for employees to change behavior because they’ve taken the focus off intrinsic motivation and put it on cash, at least in part.

It will take a long time — and probably hundreds of thousands more dollars — to undo the mindset they’ve created once the organization realizes that signups don’t mean health.

If you’d like to learn how to achieve exceptional wellness program participation without huge cash incentives, view the SlideShare: You Can Keep Wellness Participants Coming Back for More.

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