The Loop

Wellness: Let the Games Begin

Filed under: Wellness

Stress. Inertia. Overindulging. These are behaviors many of us struggle to control in our personal lives. But when an employer steps in to try to influence good health...really? It's easy to imagine that, for some workers, their response may be to experience more stress, inertia, and overindulgence. That's why many companies are pursuing a relatively new trend in wellness programs: Gamification. In other words, instead of setting up heavy-handed expectations and financial disincentives, some organizations make a game of adopting healthy behaviors.

You can't quibble with a business's motivation to nurture a healthier workforce. A study published by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that when health and wellness programs are executed as part of a comprehensive healthcare strategy, over time the cost can generate a return on investment of $3 for every $1 spent. and games it is! Wellness gaming strategies are designed to better engage employees in order to make changes in their behavior. This tactic generally involves three components: Rules, rewards, and social interaction/collaboration. For example, launch a 10,000 steps walking program with company-wide, team, and individual goals and rewards. Some games incorporate an immersion experience in which "players" are encouraged to create a game name and simulated personality; even use game-generated catch-phrases.

This is similar to creating "gamer tags" and role playing often associated with video games. A department head may dub himself "Head Honcho," his assistant "The Gatekeeper," while other team members become the "Warrior Princess," "Court Jester," "Guard Dog," and even the (Thai-food fan) "Prince of Pad Thai." Meanwhile, other departments put up fierce competitor personalities in opposition. Ultimately, the competition becomes a game of who/what team reaches prescribed fitness goals first – a driver that can be both fun and effective for employees.

Some gamification programs incorporate social networking tools that allow participants to monitor each other's progress and interact from both work and home computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Early empirical research has revealed positive results. However, the strategy is not without drawbacks. The biggest issues include (1) the impact on work productivity and/or infringement on personal time, (2) conflicts that can arise between competitive vs. recreational participants and, (3) the long-term effectiveness of short-term rewards and incentives. In other words, while extrinsic rewards may produce results in the short run, the overall impact may undermine a person's intrinsic motivation – which is necessary to retain healthy behaviors over the long haul.

Is good health its own reward? Perhaps, but one study revealed that more than three quarters of employees say additional rewards are important to participate in an employer wellness program, and 61% say incentives are one of the main reasons to engage in a program. It's important to consider your workforce – both as a whole and among individuals – when considering a gamification wellness program. It may be a good idea to offer a wide range of incentive options in order to appeal to the varied preferences of your employee population. For example, include options for employees to compete in games publicly (with open access to progress), to compete privately (with open access to team results only), and to engage in games without having to compete with others.

The following are some guidelines to consider when developing a wellness gamification strategy:

• Keep it simple, easy, and achievable
• Points, levels, and rewards help drive engagement, ongoing employee participation, and resultant healthy behaviors
• Employ regular challenges to re-energize enthusiasm
• Make it easy to track and monitor progress
• Make it social – provide ways for employees to connect socially to share scores, talk about leader-boards, exchange tips/tricks, and brag about their success
• Get C-level buy in – even participation
• Capture data to gauge your game's efficacy and use it to adjust the game for changing needs to achieve ongoing results

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