The role of incentives in wellness programming

The mantra “build it and they will come” may have worked in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t always work with wellness programming.

When wellness programs are first introduced, they typically achieve fairly high levels of participation. However, participation often declines once the newness wears off. Incentives can help engage, re-engage and retain participation, as well as helping change health behaviours.

Typically, workplace wellness programs attract participation rates between 30 and 50 per cent, which means more than half the workforce isn’t involved. Incentives are intended to reward participation in some aspect of the wellness program, such as completing a survey or attending a health screening.

Read: What are the ingredients of a successful wellness program?

In addition to rewarding participation, incentives can be used to help reinforce health-enhancing behaviours, like drinking more water or taking more steps. They’re typically linked to a specific activity or event. Also, incentive programs bundle wellness initiatives intended to work together to influence individual behaviour and/or group behaviour patterns.

For example, an incentive may be offered for completing a health risk assessment. The HRA incentive may be included as part of a multi-intervention program that will earn the employee incentives for completing each of the individual components of the program. Offering a larger incentive to employees who complete all of the program’s pre-established activities is another good option.

It’s also important to communicate clearly about the incentive to ensure employees understand the incentive, how it’s earned and why they’ll benefit by participating in the wellness activity.

Types of wellness incentives

When choosing incentives, it’s important to offer rewards that employees will value. Here are some examples of incentive types that help promote healthy behaviours.

Read: Technology influencing the future of wellness benefits: survey

No-cost incentives are non-tangible benefits, such as offering flexible schedules so employees can attend a screening clinic during their workday or paid time off to exercise.

Low-cost incentives are more tangible in nature and typically cost less than $100. These may include branded water bottles, T-shirts, gym bags, yoga mats or paid entrance to a charity event (i.e., marathon or cycling event). Low-cost incentives are typically used at the activity level, while mid- or high-cost incentives are more appropriately aligned at the incentive program level.

When choose which rewards to offer, there are three primary types of incentives that may be more effective depending on the type of wellness initiative.

1. Participation-based incentives. Rewards for anyone who participates in the wellness program. This option is the most inclusive and encourages overall participation. Participation-based incentives can also be administered as random draws.

2. Progress-based incentives. These rewards are given to participants as they work towards their goals, marking stages in their weight loss or number of steps counted. This option is fairly inclusive and ensures active participation.

3. Outcome-based incentives. These are awarded to participants who meet a certain goal, such as healthy blood pressure levels or decreased risk for diabetes. Some look at outcome-based incentives as the least inclusive option since it excludes participants who aren’t at risk or who haven’t yet reached their goal. This option provides some value because it shows all employees where they need to stay to maximize their health.

For each workplace, the culture and employee demographics are different, so employers should make sure to offer incentive types that their team values.

Read: When is an employee benefit taxable?

Once the preferred incentives are chosen, employers should check with the payroll team because certain incentives are taxable. Perks like gym memberships are considered non-taxable, as is company swag, such as T-shirts, mugs, trophies and other items of nominal value the employer gives out. If the workplace has an onsite gym or recreation facility for employees, using the facilities isn’t considered a taxable benefit. Employers should read the fine print because they’ll want to avoid an incentive the Canada Revenue Agency considers taxable income.

In the end, for success, incentives need to be part of a comprehensive health promotion and human resources strategy.