With study after study coming out proving that a wide variety of working lifestyles can cause health problems and employer reputation on the line, it's no wonder that nearly every workplace across the planet (yes, it's that widespread) has begun looking into ways to promote employee health. Unfortunately, the right approach is often elusive.
The Stick vs Carrot analogy references an ancient stubborn pack animal. You can either hit them with the stick when they go slow or hang a carrot in front of their face to encourage quickness. From this perspective, something about corporate wellness causes employers to lean toward the "stick" methods time and time again. Some employers get caught up in harmful fads like biggest loser challenges or before/after pictures while others become more preoccupied with 'beating the numbers' on employee weight or checkup results rather caring about the actual health of their team members. Both of these mistakes tend to lead to a terrible combination of participation requirements and shaming, two things that have never done well in actually causing professionals to improve their lifestyles and become healthier.
Companies that have found success in promoting health and see results in employee wellness are almost universally using methods that apply the "carrot" methods of incentivization instead of "stick" style fitness requirements.
You might be thinking to yourself
"I'm the employer. I can require my employees to do things like empty their own trash cans or smoke far away from the building. I can solve this whole 'employee wellness' problem simply by requiring my employees to do healthy things."
This mindset leads employers to build fitness quotas and punish employees who fail to meet them, and this often ends in one of three possible results:
Even worse is when the goals are based on fitness results. It might sound like a good idea to be results-oriented, but when it comes to fitness too much results focus often leads to shaming. Everyone has a different metabolism and there may be many physical limitations that you were not aware of when building the results goals. Some people cannot lose weight as easily as others, some cannot walk as many steps, and many will need months if not years to reach a true state of fitness.
Another major risk of fitness requirements and using the stick instead of the carrot is accidental discrimination. Before you decide that a required set of exercises or fitness tasks is the solution to employee wellness, ask yourself if there might be a legitimate medical reason that an employee could not meet these goals.
Disability discrimination is the first and most obvious potential risk and you might not be aware that one or more of your employees has a back, hip, or knee problem. While you might be prepared to make exceptions for wheelchair-bound or pregnant employees, think twice before you shame someone for being slow or hesitant to run a mile with their department every morning.
The second major risk of discrimination is less obvious, especially with the current 'trendy' theme to many updating corporate cultures. You could accidentally be discriminating against your older employees, another protected demographic. Asking staff members to run a mile, pump iron, or change their diets could be harmful to those who are already naturally losing muscle mass, physical energy, and digestive abilities.
The final reason to avoid requirement and punishment approaches to employee wellness is that they don't work. You're not actually dealing with a stubborn pack animal, these are your employees we're talking about. They are professionals deserving of respect and personal choice. They are adults who have been making decisions about their own health and well-being for decades and they aren't going to suddenly revert back to children in gym class because you told them to. You can't give them detention for sitting out of the inter-department soccer game and if you try, you're likely to see a lot of resentment followed eventually by high turnover.
It's admirable to want your employees to be healthy. However, trying to force them through punishment into healthy activities is about the worst way possible to earn the participation, respect, and productivity you are no likely aiming for.
The real way to succeed at corporate wellness is not by hitting your employees with the stick of penalties and public shaming but instead motivating them to reach new fitness goals. Remember that your employees are not donkeys, they are grown professionals who make their own decisions. They have been choosing, to a certain extent, to live sedentary lives eating less than healthy meals because it's easy and relatively enjoyable. All you have to do to change their behavior (for those who are capable of change) is to make another course of action more rewarding with minimal hassle.
The key is to "hang the carrot" by putting enjoyable rewards at the other end of the behavior you want to see. Let's look at the example of a morning run, something that is becoming increasingly popular. Instead of telling your employees they have to start their day with a half-mile run around the office grounds or face a demerit (ie: stick), reward those that do with a free smoothie break (carrot) and hot showers in the building gym at the end of the run. Sedentary employees who want a morning smoothie will start at least taking a morning walk to earn it.
Of course, because everyone is different, just one kind of reward will only go so far and only with employees who want that reward. Not everyone likes smoothies, after all. To see widespread results, you'll need to start by building a fitness-supportive environment. Your goal is to always be positive about fitness and supportive of anyone's efforts to improve their personal health. Efforts may be as big as joining a marathon or as small as switching from soda to juice for lunch but when every effort is supported, even baby steps can turn into a real difference. To avoid accidental stick-tactics, make sure that this support is never mirrored by shaming or pressure to workout to allow everyone to go as slowly as they need to.
Group fitness and wellness activities can be a great deal of fun and double as team bonding exercises. Department and company sports teams, weekend outings, morning calisthenics and lunchtime yoga can all be incredibly beneficial but not everyone can or will participate. New members and return members of these activities should always be welcome but participation should never be mandatory or even seem mandatory. The more welcoming your group activities are without singling out non-participants, the shyer and more fitness-challenged employees will feel that they are able to simply try out participating without judgment or high expectations of their performance.
Finally, there is the issue of focusing on results. The actual healthy impact of your wellness program does matter and you absolutely should examine the success of your tactics. Separately, it is worthwhile to keep track of how effective the wellness programs have been for each individual employee but just like a parent with multiple children, never directly compare one employee's success to another.
Reward results when you see them and praise those employees that get really into the fitness programs or succeed at dropping a lot of weight. At the same time, go out of your way to reward employees who are putting in the effort whether or not they show up for every event or if the results are immediately evident. In many cases, those benefiting the most from your program are also those for whom results will not show for months if not years because they need to go slow or are working against a heavy-set metabolism.
Building a truly effective employee wellness program is all about being flexible and supportive. When you are trying to raise the general healthiness of people who range between 20 and 70, and between 110lbs and 350 lbs, you're going to see some very different results. By implementing only 'carrot' incentivization tactics, you can entice the shy, sedentary, and physically unwell employees to get started working on their health, and not just wind up rewarding the already athletic members of your workforce.
Photo Credit: Revolutionhealthaz