Low participation rates continue to bedevil managers of corporate wellness programs.
Bottom line: It’s not that most employees don’t want to take advantage of wellness options. The programs simply aren’t being packaged and promoted in a way to facilitate greater participation.
Sean McManamy, senior vice president of HealthFitness, says most employers lean heavily on financial incentives to drive participation. Such incentives are often in the form of lower insurance premiums or program-related bonuses.
“Certainly financial incentives drive participation,” he says. “Almost all employers offer them now — we’re seeing an escalation in incentives as employers battle low participation rates. But what we found was that that incentives alone do not drive participation or engagement.
“When you look at the difference between those who participate and those who don’t, some of the strongest reasons were culture. The employer may be offering an incentive and thinking it equates to supporting a culture of health — and those are not one in the same.”
For instance, the survey found employers that have employee wellness programs often don’t communicate that one is available. Or, as McManamy says, employers may have one that they can point to, but many employers don’t believe health and fitness are part of the culture, and think the wellness program is just window dressing.
The key to increasing engagement, he says, is to focus on the spectrum of participation, from active participants at one end, to completely non-active at the other, and then tailor engagement strategies to those in the middle.
“It doesn’t take much to move the group in the middle to one end or the other,” he says. “They are on the fence. You have to show them you truly support health and fitness as part of the culture.
The survey reports active participants clearly benefit from wellness options; 79 percent say they are satisfied with the program and the results they achieved.
HealthFitness wanted to find out more about those who resisted joining the programs, particularly those in the middle of the engagement spectrum. Those people were much more ready to participate than earlier research indicated.
Identifying a higher level of interest among such employees was a key finding of the study. Of nonparticipants, 60 percent say they are “likely to start participating, but for some reason do not.” Those were the ones of most interest to the researchers. Digging deeper into the factors blocking participation, they found the following:
41 percent of employee nonparticipants aren’t satisfied with the wellness options they have. These nonparticipants are likelier than participants to leave their employer, to fail to refer someone to the company and be less productive overall.
53 percent of nonparticipants “feel that there are cultural barriers preventing them from fully engaging, including inconvenience and their employers’ lack of support for their participation,” the report says.
69 percent of nonparticipants blame a lack of information on their failure to participate. “In some cases, the proportion of employees aware of programs’ availability is 30 percent lower than the proportion of employers indicating they offer the program,” HealthFitness says.
Professionals such as coaches, trainers, and other specialists are key drivers of engagement, and many who weren’t involved cited the lack of such professionals as a barrier. Participants appreciate the personal touch in wellness programming — 75 percent cite it as a key motivator to ongoing participation.
Getting past 'window dressing'
A more nuanced factor is communicating to employees that it’s expected they will participate in at least some of the menu options on company time, McManamy says.
He uses the example of a bus driver who, in a focus group, complains that the company did not offer any time for her during her workday to take breaks to exercise or participate in other programs.
“She told us, ‘We get a financial incentive, but I sit on my bus all day driving — my employer does nothing to help me take a break and walk around or to offer me opportunities to participate in the programs that are offered. They don’t really mean it when they offer that financial incentive,’” he says. “Employees can see through these kinds of window-dressing programs where they have to do it on their own time.”
McManamy says HealthFitness’ most successful clients “are doing the programs and offering incentives but also getting senior leadership involved. A senior manager takes a walk with other employees during the day, for instance. It tells the employees that the company really means this.”
Creating a culture of health and fitness has to happen at the day-to-day working level to truly be effective. Videos and posters showing the CEO working out aren’t always relevant to the rank and file.
“Employees wanted to see their direct manager is saying it’s okay and important to participate. The CEO can be too far removed from the employee. They need to know their direct boss supports the program and the culture of health,” he says.