Part 2: Why poor employee engagement is killing your business (and your staff), and what you can do about it


How you can get your employees to engage with your wellness programme

By Rob Finch at Step Jockey


Drop the stick (avoid enforcement)

It’s simple psychology. Prohibiting something makes it more appealing, while enforcement causes alienation, resentment and knee-jerk rebellion.

Banning unhealthy foods from staff canteens and vending machines can be extremely unpopular and tends to lead ingenious staff to workarounds. And it’s often those who need the help the most who react to it most strongly (remember, the mums handing junk food through the school fence in defiance of a junk food ban?).

Focus on the unengaged majority

The same is true with many workplace fitness initiatives. The real aim of these programmes should be to engage the unfit majority, not provide freebies for the already healthy minority. Take onsite gyms, for example, a growing trend in many large workplaces because it’s an obvious thing to do. Despite the vast expense in setting them up, they are usually only used by a handful of already fit staff.

For the unfit, a gym is daunting place. The thought of having to exercise in front of colleagues in figure-hugging Lycra is beyond the pale. This issue can be particularly thorny for women, with gyms often seen as male-dominated, intimidating places. With obesity now affecting more women than men, it’s clear that a new approach is needed.

Allow freedom of choice

Acknowledging the dangers of enforcement, let people make choices for themselves but nevertheless ‘nudge’ them toward the healthy option.

Major global businesses such as Google and Apple are rewarding their staff by offering access to free healthy meals, snacks and juices all held within dynamic canteen spaces designed to encourage people to get up and move away from their desks and socialise at lunch time.

Similarly, many companies in the Square Mile are using StepJockey uses Smart Signs in their corporate office buildings. Employees at companies such as Lloyds of London, Legal and General and UBS are being seamlessly ‘nudged’ away from the lifts and towards the stairs. These nudges naturally encourage short bursts of ‘incidental’ exercise throughout the day and is inclusive as most people feel they are able to climb stairs.

Focus on the carrots (incentivisation works)

A study by Towers Watson proposes looking at a new model of ‘sustainable engagement’ in which work culture is viewed as a significant contributing factor towards good employee engagement. A supportive, well-being conscious culture which embraces employee’s real-world needs scores most highly.

It’s important for employers to create an environment which is conducive to health without putting pressure on people. One way of achieving this is by rewarding people for doing healthy things. The incentive itself could come in varying forms. For example:

  • Financial: If the notion of exercising and eating healthily doesn’t seem too appealing by itself, winning a little extra cash in your pocket for making the healthy choice often provides the missing incentive. Rewards like bonuses or vouchers can work brilliantly to win staff over, but beware cheating. And be doubly aware of perverse incentives – only rewarding those who achieve most can adversely affect those who miss out – a sprinkling of incentives for participation can work wonders.
  • Non-financial: A tangible reward, like extra time off or a fun team away-day, can be just as effective in engaging staff in healthy habits at work. These are also brilliant for building that social, fun workplace culture, which pays dividends in boosting engagement.
  • Social recognition: Part of good work culture is down to support, and having your achievement publically recognised can make it feel really worthwhile – especially if the acknowledgement comes from the CEO! Mentions at company awards ceremonies or a ‘Health champion of the month’ feature in the company newsletter can go a long way (and inspire others).

Turn play into health with digital gamification

In the decade or so since the smartphone revolution began, there has been a creative explosion of digital technology. Pioneers are now looking at how the thinking behind fun applications – such as the world-famous Farmville, Angry Birds and Candy Crush – could be used more practically to turn keeping healthy into a game accessible to the masses.

Meshing digital technology with behavioural economics theory is the key to creating a successful gamification initiative. To work well, the game must:

  • provide incentives
  • present health in a way which affects people positively, and
  • attain regular commitment for the new healthy habit to become the norm.

The key to boosting engagement and forming healthy new habits is commitment. Gamification can ingrain this commitment through collaboration and competition both at a personal level for the individual and as a collective within locations, functions, friendship groups, or simply random virtual teams.

Running a challenge where people can join with colleagues to form their own, often amusingly-named teams can really help build camaraderie and team spirit which can further the aims of any organisation’s engagement drive.

Research conducted for StepJockey showed that by using incentives and gaming, we could engage those hard-to-reach groups. Our trials showed that women, overweight people and those who exercise less than three times a week were the most likely to be engaged.

So, to build engagement in your organisation, just think about these five key points:

  1. Use subtle micro-incentives to provide more cost-effective engagement in the long term
  2. Reward participation as well as achievement – not everyone who tries hard succeeds
  3. Don’t go for 100% engagement. Co-opting people into engagement programmes can alienate.
  4. Don’t judge success on engaging the easy-to-engage people – you’ll have better results overall if you simply break down the barriers for the harder-to-engage staff.
  5. Get employees to emotionally invest with their colleagues in a non-work task to drive teamwork and commitment.

Read Part 1 here.