Effective wellness programs must take science-based approach to motivating employees

Employers that want to see their wellness programs pay dividends need to develop a strategy that’s rooted in behavioural science.

“This idea of ticking a box on wellness is not working anymore,” said Cynthia Hastings-James, co-founder of BestLifeRewarded Innovations, during a webinar hosted by the Canadian Pension and Benefits Institute on Thursday. “It really needs to be not just a wellness library or a generic approach, but a science-based approach to focusing on individual needs and motivators and then bundling in proven behavioural models.”

This is particularly true today, as the coronavirus pandemic causes financial stressors for employees who are seeing their retirement balances take a hit and are worried about having enough money to pay their bills.

Read: Healthier workplaces combine financial wellness with traditional well-being offerings

“Given the situation that we’re all dealing with, . . . managing the well-being and peace of mind [of employees] at this current moment is probably more important than it’s ever been,” said Hastings-James. “In this really challenging situation, we believe it’s a fantastic opportunity to set up wellness [programming] in a way that sets everyone up for success in the future.”

As well, she noted, employees’ financial well-being is inextricably linked with their mental and physical health. According to a 2013 study in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 95 per cent of Canadians who are living with debt experience anxiety, while 94 per cent experience physical health problems and 48 per cent lose sleep.

Employees’ financial well-being also impacts employers’ bottom line, with productivity taking a hit as staff lose work hours to feeling stressed and being unable to cope, said Hastings-James.

However, wellness programs, which are meant to address these types of stressors, face one major challenge. “We all know we should be doing the right things . . . but the reality is, life gets in the way. Despite knowing the right things to do, we just don’t.”

Read: Four steps to building a successful financial wellness program

For employers that are considering implementing programs to help their employees with financial, mental and physical wellness — or for those looking to revamp their current offerings — Hastings-James suggested they consider four core behavioural models that address how willing employees are to make changes in their lives and how to motivate them to do so.

The first is the stages of change scale, developed by James Prochaska, director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center and a professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Rhode Island, and Carlo Di Clemente, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Maryland. The scale outlines five stages that people go through when preparing to make a behavioural change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. This scale is key to keep in mind for wellness programming, said Hastings-James, as people in different stages will require different messaging to encourage them to start or continue a program.

She also encouraged employers to consider a positive reinforcement model of conditioning, where people who are rewarded for certain decisions continue to repeat those choices to receive further rewards. Consumer loyalty programs are a good example of how effective the rewards model can be. “There’s a lot of irrational behaviour going on [with consumer loyalty programs] but what we can do is really leverage that idea of, ‘I want my points and I want to collect these points.'”

Read: In workplace wellness programs, is it better to use the carrot or the stick?

However, Hasting-James cautioned that a wellness program can’t only rely on a rewards structure to encourage meaningful change in employees. “We’ve seen many examples where groups would implement a wellness program and put points on it and that works for a little bit, but . . . as people get more savvy about it, they want to earn more points and the novelty factor, after a while, falls off. Rewards alone, we’ve seen in the literature, don’t work over the long term.”

Another important model to keep in mind is the conviction and confidence model, which was developed by Vaughn Keller, former director of the health behaviour laboratory at the University of Miami-Humana Health Services Research Center. Through this model, people are asked two questions related to the change they want to make: How important it is for them to make the change and how strongly they believe they can actually do it.

“It’s important to assess this on a regular basis, because sometimes behaviour change has a long-term payoff [but] there’s not always an immediate payoff,” said Hastings-James. “Based on how people answer those two questions, you can come up with a lot of good support tools that would target them.”

Read: Financial well-being affecting work performance, stress levels

Employers should determine their near- and long-term objectives for their wellness program, as well as key performance indicators such as reducing health-care costs, sick days and disability claims or improving employee productivity, she said, noting they should also collect baseline data on employees to help monitor the impact of these program.

Hastings-James said these wellness assessments can cover data on employees’ lifestyle, family history of health and their current financial situation, but should also factor in questions from those behavioural models, including what motivates them, how open they are to making changes and their conviction level that changing their situation is possible.

With these answers, employees can have a personalized wellness experience. “As an example, if someone is having a personal issue and they need to speak with an [employee assistance program], why not — if they’re at risk in a particular area around mental well-being — highlight for them, ‘Did you know you have this EAP service available to you? Here’s the number to contact, and we’re going to give you points for engaging in it,”’ said Hastings-James.

“If done properly, these wellness initiatives can really act as a catalyst to get a better engagement and [return on investment] for those other services that you’re offering, but also, for that individual, it serves up relevant tools based on their individual motivators.”

Read: What you don’t know about your employee assistance program

However, she cautioned, employers have to clearly communicate with staff that their data isn’t being shared in an individual fashion and is only seen in aggregate. “It’s super important that people feel secure that their personal information is never going to be shared on an individual basis,” she said.

Once the program is running, employers should follow the data to see where they’ve been successful and identify the gaps that they should focus on in the future, she added. As well, employers shouldn’t be discouraged if they’re only seeing small changes. “Even if it’s one or two per cent, it doesn’t feel like a lot, but from a bottom-line standpoint, it’s huge.”