by James A. Martin

5 easy ways to keep employees engaged in wellness

Jul 14, 2016
CareersConsumer ElectronicsHealth and Fitness Software

Employee wellness programs are no longer a novelty, and in many organizations the initial excitement has died down. Corporate wellness experts and HR reps share real-world examples of how to keep staff engaged with simple enhancements and incentives.

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Credit: Thinkstock

During the past few years, many organizations received this memo: Healthy employees are good for the bottom line. Employee wellness benefits and fitness challenges that use technologies such as Fitbit trackers and mobile apps are the new normal.

Giving away or subsidizing activity trackers has proven to effectively engage employees, and the trend should continue. By 2018, as much as 80 percent of wellness programs in the United States could involve fitness trackers, and they’ll motivate up to a third of U.S. workers to obtain a wristband or other tracker, according to Angela McIntyre, a research director for wearables at Gartner.

How can organizations encourage and even grow employee engagement in these programs? Speakers at Fitbit’s recent Captivate conference and additional corporate wellness experts share insights.

1. Turn wellness into wellbeing

Plain old wellness programs, devoted to encouraging employees to improve their physical health, are so 2015. Today, such programs are evolving into wellbeing programs that encompass physical, emotional, social and even financial health. 

“The wellness program conversation has changed as organizations recognize and acknowledge that holistic health and wellness extend far beyond one’s physical health,” says Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse, which provides a suite of employee health and wellbeing products. “No longer is healthcare cost reduction the primary reason for helping employees stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy. Wellbeing is now becoming strategic for many leading organizations.”

[Related: 7 common pitfalls of corporate wellness programs]

Boyce expects the trend to continue as organizations expand their definitions of wellbeing and understand the business value associated with getting employees engaged in programs that help them be successful in other areas of their lives.  

Cisco is a good example of a global firm that recently evolved from offering simple wellness programs to a more rounded wellbeing platform. The networking company’s traditional wellness benefits include access to seven high tech U.S. fitness centers, where employees can use cloud-based software to record their workouts, talk to trainers, or watch TV during workouts, according to Katelyn Johnson, Cisco’s manager of integrated health. Cisco also takes a BYOD approach to employee activity trackers, and the company lets staff connect their Fitbits, Garmins, Apple Watches and other devices to the “wellness cloud,” she says.

Today, Cisco’s wellbeing platform consists of four pillars of health: physical, emotional, social and financial health, according to Johnson. Health-focused cloud software, apps and technologies developed by Cisco partners enable each pillar. As a technology company, Cisco’s pillars have high-tech components, though the goal is to make sure Cisco “uses the right technology at the right time to drive the right behaviors,” she says.

As part of the emotional pillar, for example, Cisco offers on-site mindfulness workshops and lets employees practice mindfulness using mobile apps and games. The company also hopes to eventually deliver virtual mindfulness workshops, according to Johnson.

2. Help employees improve financial health

Some employee wellness programs have had emotional health components for a while, but adding financial wellbeing initiatives to employee programs is a recent trend. 

“Financial wellbeing programs, in particular, are in demand, as financial concerns among employees are rising,” according to Douglas Choo, head of strategy, national accounts at insurance company MetLife, which recently conducted its 14th annual Employee Benefit Trends Study. Choo says MetLife’s study found that 46 percent of all employees believe their personal financial situations will improve in the next year, a number that’s down from 52 percent in 2014. “Similarly, in just four years, employee concerns about meeting monthly living expenses have increased by 15 percentage points, up from 38 percent in 2012 to more than half of employees — 53 percent — in 2015,” Choo says.

While 53 percent of the employees MetLife surveyed believe financial education workshops help them better understand their financial needs, only 38 percent of employers offer these programs, according to the study. 

Cisco introduced its financial health program about a year ago, according to Johnson, and it includes WebEx webinars on a variety of topics, such as how to manage a 401K. Employees can go to a Cisco microsite, pick a financial persona that fits, and then, based on that persona, choose from the suggested webinars. Cisco also plans to offer on-site financial counseling, and employees will be able to meet with financial planners face-to-face, Johnson says.

To encourage greater employee engagement, a growing number of organizations are tying fitness challenges and other wellness programs to “social responsibility,” according to Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager of Fitbit Group Health, which offers hardware and software for enterprise fitness initiatives. 

Last fall, Target rolled out its first corporate wellness challenge using Fitbits that employees could either get for free or buy at subsidized prices, depending upon the models they wanted, according to Cara McNulty, head of big-box-retailer Target’s Population Health and Team Member Wellness program, who spoke during a session at the Fitbit Captivate event.

Eighteen different teams won Target’s daily challenge during a one-month period by racking up the highest average daily step counts using their Fitbits, McNulty said. The reward? Each winning team got $50,000 to donate to the charity of their choice. The challenge also resulted in a company-wide monthly total of 13 billion steps and 6 million miles tracked, as well as 500 million calories burned, she said.

>[Related: 9 ways corporate fitness and wellness programs will change in 2016]

Target’s charity fitness challenge is in line with its culture of corporate responsibility, and the retailer gives 5 percent of its profits to community causes each year, according to McNulty. “Our motto is simple,” she said. “We focus on our teams to serve our guests in order to impact our community.”

Cisco takes a different approach with its wellbeing program’s social component, which includes giving employees a week of paid time off (PTO) every year for volunteer work. That volunteer time isn’t subtracted from their total PTO, according to Johnson. This type of giving back is especially important to millennials, she says, and the volunteer PTO both helps Cisco attract new workers and benefits the organizations its employees choose to assist.

Japanese electronics company Tokyo Electron, which in 2010 was one of the first organizations to rollout an employee Fitbit program, also tied its fitness challenges to charity goals, according to Vickie Lee, the company’s senior vice president of HR. “For every step participants took in our Walk into Spring program, we made a contribution to a Japanese earthquake relief fund,” she says. “The contributions increased participation, because employees knew that just by walking, they were contributing to the recovery efforts of their coworkers who were affected.”

4. Emphasize team activities

As illustrated by the successes at Target and Tokyo Electron, many companies “are moving more towards the team aspect of fitness and wellness,” says John Mills, executive vice president of business development at Rideau Recognition Solutions, which provides recognition and reward systems for employers. “Individual accomplishments are still very important and need to be recognized. But being part of a team and working towards a common goal of reporting wellness activities is increasing the participation rates in companies.”

Employees are often motivated when they feel like they’re part of a team, according to Mills, and a desire to help teammates can increase engagement levels in wellness programs. 

5. Tap social media to promote wellness

Indiana University Health encourages its employees to post photos of themselves on Twitter and other social networks using the hashtag #healthyselfie, according to Marci Cooper, its manager of employee wellness. The organization wants its staff to post photos of themselves exercising or being healthy this summer, for example. The #healthyselfie hashtag “gives other employees ideas, it makes a big organization smaller, and it makes wellness fun and fresh,” she says.

Connecting social media with wellness at work can also payoff afterhours, according to Cooper. To help increase her daily steps, for instance, Cooper used the social network Nextdoor to find people on her block who were available to walk after putting their kids to bed. “My boss is really competitive and is an early bird,” she says. “I needed a way to get in extra steps after work.” Cooper’s group consists of neighbors she didn’t previously know, and they now walk frequently walk together, she says.