7 common pitfalls of corporate wellness programs

Wellness leaders from Fitbit, SAP, Bank of America and the state of South Carolina share insight and advice based on lessons learned from their organizations' early fitness-tracker based corporate wellness programs.

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Employee wellness programs that use activity trackers, such as Fitbits, are still fairly new. Many modern organizations simply learn as they go, regularly trying different health strategies and fitness challenges to motivate employees to take better care of themselves. The rewards of corporate wellness and fitness programs are well-documented, and they include reduced healthcare costs and absenteeism, as well as increased employee loyalty and satisfaction. But what about the missteps organizations make along the way?

Good intentions don't always lead to positive outcomes, as some organizations with activity tracker-focused fitness and wellness programs can attest. Here are seven actual challenges and potential pitfalls real organizations faced with their wellness and fitness programs, along with the related lessons they learned.

1. Team wellness challenges vs. individual competitions

Indiana University Health, a healthcare system partnered with the Indiana University School of Medicine, used free trips to Chicago and the Caribbean as awards in an employee wellness challenge. To enter the drawing for the trips, participants had to log 10,000 or more steps per day using their Fitbits, according to Marci Cooper, the organization's employee wellness manager. Unfortunately, the staff quickly accused others of cheating, because some people claimed to have logged more than 40,000 steps in one day. "The teeth really came out," Cooper says.

The lesson learned? Team challenges work better than individual challenges.

2. Communication is critical — and easy to get wrong

At the recent Fitbit Captivate 2016 conference in San Francisco, nearly every wellness program leader we interviewed for this story said they find it challenging to effectively communicate to employees how fitness programs and challenges work, the related benefits, and the participation guidelines.

Email seems like a natural channel for program updates, but employee inboxes everywhere are already full, and getting workers to read wellness newsletters can be difficult, according to Jason Russell, director of the North America Total Rewards employee benefits program for SAP America.

[Related: Pros and cons of using fitness trackers for corporate wellness]

Russell recommends keeping email communications brief, about a page or less. And they should be easy to read and interesting. For example, employees are more likely to get or stay engaged when newsletters highlight other employees or executives that participate in fitness programs. SAP America's wellness emails sometimes include brief interviews with workers about how they stay fit, modeled after the bios featured regularly in Runner's World magazine, Russell says.

Whenever wellness leaders or representatives communicate about fitness program events, they should pay close attention to everything they say, according to Julie Bonsall, workplace wellbeing supervisor for the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (RTA). "One word, used the wrong way, can throw people off," she says. As an example, Bonsall cites a poster that promoted an RTA wellness screening event and contained language about confidentiality. The intent was to convey that results from screenings would be kept confidential. However, many employees misinterpreted the message and assumed others — their peers — would also be present at the screenings. Few staffers showed up due to confidentiality concerns.

Communication about wellness programs is particularly challenging in organizations at which considerable percentages of employees don't have corporate email accounts, according to Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager of Fitbit Group Health. Carefully worded posters and "table tents" in break rooms can be effective ways to get the word out, she says. 

Some organizations, such as RTA and Japanese electronics company Tokyo Electron, choose to develop mobile apps focused on wellness programs, fitness challenges and employee benefits, as a way to inform and engage staff.

Tokyo Electron, one of the first organizations to roll out an official employee Fitbit program back in 2010, this year released an app called CarePlus Mobile, according to Vickie Lee, the company's senior vice president of human resources (HR). The app ties in with Tokyo Electron's benefits program, so employees can easily see their health savings account balances and spending, and track wellness program awards. A "Gap in Care" feature lets employees know when it's time for routine preventative health screenings or prescription refills. Employees who chose to "close the gap" receive a $25 award, Lee says.

3. Effective wellness programs require IT involvement

The software programs that are sometimes required to participate in fitness challenges and wellness programs don't always get along with IT firewalls, according to Indiana University Health's Cooper. So she worked with the organization's IT team in advance to "make sure the software programs could be loaded onto participants' computers."

Similarly, Lee of Tokyo Electron says she worked with IT to make sure they would support Fitbits before purchasing 1,200 devices for employees. "I knew that could be an issue, so I started [the program] by talking to IT," Lee says.

4. Wellness programs may need more resources

HR departments are often lean, because they're not typically viewed as revenue generators. How can HR representatives launch and manage employee wellness programs when their team members already have full plates? Get an intern.

At SAP America, an intern "took the leadership role in working with Fitbit, making the time to develop employee communication materials, and handling the tactical stuff," Russell says.

Hiring someone part-time is also an option, and HR reps can monitor how well the person motivates employees to engage with fitness challenges or wellness programs, and then, based on positive results, possibly hire them fulltime. RTA did just that when it hired Bonsall. A personal trainer at the time, the company brought Bonsall on part-time as an employee wellness coordinator and gave her "lofty goals" to achieve — which she did. Three months later, the company offered her a fulltime position. 

5. Employees worry about misuse of fitness data

Some employees are rightfully concerned about how their activity information and other wellness program data will be used — and if it will somehow be used against them. It's essential to communicate clearly, transparently and early about the specific data wellness programs collect and is done (and not done) with the information, according to Anne Oxrider, Bank of America's (BoA) senior vice president and senior benefits consultant, during a session at the recent Fitbit conference.

[Related: 14 ways to improve corporate wellness programs with wearable]

When BoA first rolled out its wellness program, it saw far lower participation than expected due to employee concern over data collection. Oxrider "spent a lot of time" visiting various bank locations around the country to specify how and why employee data would be safe, and to address employee concerns. As a result, 87 percent of the company's employees eventually participated in the initial wellness program, she said. 

6. Not all employees know how to use activity trackers

"We took it for granted that Fitbit is user-friendly," says Jen Wright, working well director of the South Carolina Hospital Association, who worked with state Representative Neal Collins to get its House of Representatives engaged in activity challenges and programs.

However, some legislators didn't receive or see their invites to join the Fitbit program. Others didn't know how to sync their steps to their accounts, or where to view team activity data. It's important to offer up-front instructions on how to use the hardware and software that fuel activity challenges, Wright says.

7. Prepare to get lots of wellness pitches from startups

There's certainly no shortage of startups entering the field of employee health and wellness programs today. "We get half a dozen pitches every week" from such startups, Russell says.

While companies don't want to miss out on worthwhile additions to their organizations' wellness programs, they should be careful not to make them too complicated for employees. Bank of America's Oxrider said it's important to ask startups about how they protect employee data, as well as how they scale, and also request a list of results their products earned for customers.

Most importantly, organizations need to stay focused on what's important to their employees. "You don't want to give your employees 50 apps they need to look at in order to figure out what to do" about their health and wellness, Oxrider said.

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