Strategic Messaging: The Key to Effectively Communicating Wellness Incentive Programs

by J.Randy Jones

Wellness programs have now become a significant part of the corporate culture here in the US. The Rand Study released this year reported 92% of employers with >200 employees offered some type of wellness program.

Successful Wellness Programs: Better Engagement

Unfortunately, not all programs successfully impact the health of their employees. One of the most intensive debates on the effectiveness of wellness programs is their true impact on health behavior change.

While numerous studies support the fact that wellness programs are having a positive impact on their workforce health status, many employers are concerned that if they are to  “dip their toe” into the wellness pool, how best can they guarantee positive results.

In his book Zero Trends, Dee Edington refers to specific target numbers important to the success of worksite wellness programs. One important number is “participation” or what some call engagement.   His states by engaging a minimum of 70% to 80%, the likelihood of success becomes much greater, referring to this concept as “herd immunity”. He’s convinced that if  programs are not consistently engaging >70%,  changes  need to be made.

People Need Motivation to Change

While many individuals are motivated to take care of themselves and their health, most don’t!   Over two thirds of American’s are overweight/obese, 20% of Americans smoke and >35% have three or more significant risk factors1. Most Americans take better care of their cars than themselves.

American’s aren’t unhealthy because they don’t have facts.  Information is important, but I always tell people that “if information and education changed health behaviors, we would be a county of skinny, exercising, unstressed Americans.”

The basic fact is that “people need motivation to change and achieve”! Wellness incentives are the latest strategy to come to the forefront in terms of getting employees engaged. AON Hewitt4 just reported in a study of 800 employers in the US that 83% of the companies surveyed offer employees incentives for participating in their wellness programs.

Research shows us that engagement in wellness programs with no incentives may result in dismal numbers as low as 2% to 10%, but can be significantly increased with a combination of well timed cash and impact on health benefits, producing engagement rates up to 75% to 95%.

Here’s where there is still research to be done. The link between incentives and behavior change needs more study. Right now we still believe that with better engagement, the better your chances of positively impacting your employees’ health status.

With the advent of the latest ACA legislation, employers now have at their fingertips, support to use incentives to encourage individuals to make changes. Beginning January 1, 2014, employers can incent employees up to 30% of the cost of their annual health plan to make changes.

Many employers are now faced with the important decision “do I use carrots or sticks”? Right now only about 10% of the employers offering incentives are using sticks, while 60% are seriously looking at it as a strategy over the next three to five years.


If you are a company thinking about implementing incentives, there are some important keys to keep in mind.  “Meaningful wellness initiatives with high participation and year-over-year progress depend heavily on buy-in from top to bottom, and buy in requires the best possible communication. Incentives, recognition and penalties must be well communicated and understood. An effective worksite culture of health and corresponding messaging of values must reach all employees. Communication strategies must be tailored to culture and workforce demographics, but must generally communicate the following:

1) The program must embraced by top leadership as a core company value.

No program can be effective if the leadership is not committed to its success. Leadership must be vocal and visible.  Leading by example, participating in programs, encouraging and rewarding those who do participate is key to the success of any wellness program. Wellness needs to be a part of the culture and mission of the organization.

2) There’s a meaningful “What’s in it for me?” and that value is clear and understandable…

When constructing your wellness plan, make sure you involve employees in the development of the program. Most people will tell you, “the devil many times, in the details.” The “how” you do it is as important as the “what” you do. Listening to employees is one key that helps ensure success. Construct goals that are achievable. Clearly define the steps to participate. Complex programs can be confusing. Keep it simple.

3) Consider a “softer start” before moving to contingent/ achievement based rewards.

When planning new programs, you may consider more of a phased in/soft start approach to get employees involved. For many employers making your year one focus all about rewarding participation may be the best strategy.  Use year one as an adjustment year with your goal to simply get people excited about the program. You can then implement health risk achievement and contingent rewards over time. Giving employees more lead time to participate and understand will help engage more people initially and keep them engaged longer.

4) The program must be meaningful for employees at all levels, from managers to the “front line”.

You wellness program should be designed to be “inclusive”.  Don’t set goals too high from day one. A BMI target of 30 will engage more people that a BMI target of 26 which for most may seem unreachable. Having short term intermediate goals (i.e. 10 pound in a year) will also keep more people involved.

5) Finally, communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more!

Every organization has both formal and informal communication mechanisms. Get creative with both electronic and bulletin board materials. Hit every meeting you can with short concise messages of how people can participate and deadlines. Your goal has to be to ensure that everyone in the organizing fully understands what the program entails, program goals, deadlines, and the steps employees must take to participate.