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Should we incentivise healthy behaviours at work?

How do wellbeing initiatives relate to employee engagement? Stephen Haynes tells us more...

One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to get better engagement in workplace health initiatives. This is followed closely by, should we use incentives? I hear this from both UK and US based corporations, and whilst the two may have broadly different drivers – a US company may be more focussed on controlling health insurance spend, whereas a UK company may aim to create a benefit rich culture or control sickness absence – the game and the players are the same. We are all human, and what drives us to engage is largely the same regardless of which side of the pond we are on.

Incentives (and penalties) do have a role to play in workplace health programmes, but the if, what, when and how need careful thought. So I’ve outlined some thoughts on the kind of things to consider before introducing incentives.

Understand where your workplace health programme sits alongside your corporate vision and mission.

Employers’ reasons for having a wellbeing programme will differ. At one end of the spectrum are those organisations who closely align their programme with their corporate vision and mission, firmly embedding it into their culture. At the other end, health & wellbeing is a tactic aligned to employee benefits.

Understanding where your organisation sits on this spectrum will help you design an optimal programme and determine whether incentives/ penalties are necessary.

Be clear on why you do it

That’s not to say we don’t know why, but the world of health at work is such a noisy environment to be in, it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of the purpose.

Understanding the why will better help you understand what you want to achieve. High engagement for its own sake shouldn’t really be the driver. To quote Simon Sinek, whose Golden Circle concept highlights that for an organisation to be truly successful it needs to understand the “Why?”. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

As workplace health professionals, we know what we do and most of the time, we know how to do it. Knowing why we do it is important because this underpins our beliefs, our purpose and that ultimately translates into our actions.

Consider how your wellbeing programme aligns with your employee engagement strategy

It is no surprise that people that are more committed to their organisation are far more likely to buy into their workplace health & wellness programme. Take health risk assessments for example. A study in 2008 by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that participation rates in HRAs were largely influenced by internal communications, the level of organisation commitment from staff and the level of financial incentive. Unsurprisingly, the higher the level of commitment from staff, the lower the financial incentive needed.

So it goes without saying, an employee who is not engaged in their workplace or community, is less likely to engage in a wellbeing programme.

The evidence paper published in May this year by Engage for Success pulls together the wealth of academic and organisation based evidence demonstrating the link between employee engagement and wellbeing. Engagement and wellbeing are inextricably linked – amongst the wealth of evidence that exists, staff that are engaged and committed to their organisation exhibit healthier habits, have lower levels of absence and improved psychological wellbeing to name just a few examples. Conversely, Robertson Cooper’s own client research earlier this year showed that employee wellbeing strengthened the relationship between engagement and performance.

There is also the question over staff engagement in minimal legal occupational health & safety requirements, but that’s for another day.

Ensure your programme reflects the needs of your workforce and more importantly, how do you know if it meets their needs? It is important to consider how we influence behaviours and how people ultimately react. To quote psychologist and behavioural economics expert, Alan Newman, there are three factors to consider in trying to influence behaviour, all of which translate into optimising participation in workplace health programmes:

  1. There will always be a group of people whose behaviour will not change regardless of what messages or information is put in front of them
  2. Campaigns directed at people to get them to change behaviours rarely succeed
  3. “Choice architecture” works how you structure and present choice to positively influence decisions (opt-out over opt-in, or even the image of the fly in the men’s urinal which minimises over splashing)

Today we have access to so much choice and information. Fifty years ago, we might have got high engagement from workers if we just provided onsite 1-2-1 nurse assessments, today we expect so much more and our psychological, social, cognitive and emotional influences are far greater than ever before. Added to this, the way in which we connect and engage with the workplace is changing rapidly.

Workplace health provision used to be pretty straightforward – you could largely predict the future health of your workforce based on historical performance. Trends were pretty stable and a health insurance, cash plan, EAP and a splash of occupational health where needed would pretty much set you on your way. The evolution of workplace health & wellness is in prevention through multiple controllable (and less-controllable) factors – from lifestyle to resilience, from fitness to nutrition and increasingly, relationships.

Stephen Haynes will be at the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Summit 2014. Join him today!