Rivalry in the workplace is nothing new, so the idea of pitting employees against each other as part of corporate wellness programs was bound to find its way into HR strategies.
The “gamification” movement, according to those on the front lines, is spreading fast as a way to help curb employers’ rising health care costs.
Helping fuel the trend: an explosion of online platforms that help participants track their performance and see how they stack up against co-workers.
“People don’t always do what’s best for them, or even what they would want themselves to do,” Fran Miller, president of Health Advocate Inc.’s wellness division in San Francisco, said in an article that appeared on the SHRM website. “Contests provide a boost, help increase the number of employees participating in the wellness program and generate a lot of positive feedback.”
The introduction of contests in the workplace reflects a broader trend of companies incentivizing employees to get fit.
Employer use of cash, gift cards and other prizes to reward employees who quit smoking or lose weight has risen 69 percent since 2009, according to a 2012 survey of 512 employers by the National Business Group on Health and Towers Watson, the New York-based HR consulting firm.
Team-based corporate fitness challenges, including weight-loss competition and 10Ks, work especially well at encouraging greater participation, said Andrea Meyer, benefit manager at WorkSmart Systems, a professional employer organization in Indianapolis.
That’s because competitions give employees a defined goal that they can work toward together and allows them to turn to co-workers for support and inspiration.
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“It’s important to come at wellness competitions hitting those different angles,” Meyer said. “Some people may not be comfortable participating in a team environment and would be more likely to participate on an individual level.”
That’s why employers will want to initially focus on competitions that attract a broader range of employees, and walking programs and healthful eating challenges are particularly effective in that respect, said Stephanie Pronk, senior VP at Aon Hewitt, the Chicago-based HR consulting firm.
“You can be healthy and participate, or you can have a chronic disease and still participate,” Pronk said. “Both programs have health benefits that reach a magnitude of acute and chronic conditions as well as other risk factors.”
Recording devices, such as those put out by Fitbit, are helpful for these competitions, Pronk said.
These devices are generally inexpensive and help cut errors that can come with self-reporting. With a recording device, an employer can create an group report that shows how much activity employees are actually completing.
StayWell Health Management has already seen success after launching its wellness competition in February.
The St. Paul, Minn.-based firm challenged its employees to complete 25 healthy activities on their StayWell FITGO cards, said Stefan Gingerich, senior research analyst.
Those who were up to the challenge and completed this activity requirement by the deadline were entered into a drawing for two $100 gift cards for an outdoor store that promotes healthy living.
To further encourage engagement, StayWell’s executives participated in a kick-off event, and the company promoted the initiative through email, printed advertisements and word-of-mouth.
As a result, StayWell found visits to its onsite fitness center increased four times over, and almost one-fourth of employees completed their 25 activities in only three days, Gingerich said.
StayWell included worksite biometric screenings in its program and saw an approximate 75 percent participation rate. Its health assessment was used by more than 90 percent of employees.