by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

We’re surprised how often we hear HR folks (and even the occasional seasoned wellness pro) suggest that requiring wellness challenge participants to wear a Fitbit® or Jawbone®, Garmin®, or any of dozens of other devices will prevent cheating. It doesn’t. If there are bragging rights, you’ll get a handful of cheaters. Add an incentive and you’ll get more. Make it a rich incentive and you’ll be surprised at some folks’ creative abilities to game the system.

But preventing cheating shouldn’t be the goal; it’s the problem. When you require participants in a wellness program to “prove” they did this or that, you’re saying we don’t trust you. And when you tie validation of health activities to incentives/disincentives, you turn off a lot of people often the employees who need your help most.

Want to limit corner cutters and flagrant fakers? Here’s how:

  • Stop trying. That’s right, let participants know up front that you’re treating them like an adult. Tell them the device is simply a way to gauge their own progress and have some fun. They can even add to step counts manually on the dashboard, for example, if they want to record swim “steps.”
  • Emphasize enjoyment, camaraderie, and a chance to improve health in all communications. If most of what you’re communicating is the rules, you’ve missed the mark. Tell them how this challenge/device can make their life better, not complicate it.
  • Be smart about incentives. Remember, your goal is health, not who can amass the most steps in a day, week, month, or over the course of the program. So set a reasonable threshold that’s a stretch effort for most, then reward all (or give all a chance to win) who reach the milestone. Limit it to a $20 meaningful item. And hand out rewards personally with some flare instead of dropping them in the mail. The recognition will be remembered each time they pull on the T-shirt or pack the gym bag.
  • Share success stories of ordinary folks. Seeing Jane go from couch potato to 10,000 steps is more motivating to the masses than chronicling uber accomplishments of your marathon-running CEO. Emphasize how an active lifestyle has made a difference in how they feel, how they think about themselves, how they approach work things everyone can relate to.

The beauty of tools like Fitbit is they can make starting and sticking with an exercise program more motivating and personally rewarding. Don’t ruin it by trying to box people into so-called validated measures.


# Edward Framer 2016-04-27 00:46
Nice Dean,

Lots of very good points about how not to spoil the use of devices. I've also found that having three or four different incentives that people can pick from when you deliver them also helps improve satisfaction. Nothing like getting to choose to get a little extra juice out of what you're doing. The only times I find that that's not true is if there's some kind of, shall we call it a Talisman, that gets passed around from person to person for great behavior, or if you are trying to establish the incentive as symbolic. In that case, political campaigns have found that getting people to pick between several designs also introduces the element of choice and I think that does buy something extra.
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