By Jonathan Barry
Associate Vice President, Reporting, Analytics, and Evaluation, Healthyroads

Sports Woman's legs in running movement

The research supports it: A more active workforce stands a better chance of being a healthier workforce. This is just one reason why so many employers are making fitness the centerpiece of their wellness programs.

But, despite the proven benefits of an active lifestyle, less than half of U.S. adults meet the current recommended guideline of 10,000 steps per day. So the question becomes: How can employers motivate their workforce to be more active?

Many employers offer incentives, such as rewarding employees who meet prescribed activity goals. Walk a certain number of steps with a wearable tracking device and get a reward, such as cash, a gift certificate, or discounted health insurance premiums.

So, why are so many employees still opting not to participate? It turns out that some incentive goals, if perceived as too difficult, may discourage employees rather than inspire them to action.

 A Study to Compare Two Different Goal Structures
To better understand how goal difficulty—or perceptions thereof—might impact employee participation in a physical activity program, American Specialty Health (ASH) embarked on a retrospective study in 2011 to compare two different goal structures within the company’s own wellness program.

Here are the two goal structures the study compared:

  • In 2011, the organization used a single-tier incentive design that awarded $100 to employees who took at least 500,000 steps per quarter.
  • In 2012, the model was changed to a three-tier incentive design for employees, as follows:

⇒$100 for 400,000 steps per quarter
⇒$125 for 650,000 steps per quarter, or
⇒$150 for 900,000 steps per quarter

The study, published in 2015 in the journal Population Health Management, found that the three-tier incentive design significantly boosted participation in the company’s step program compared to the single-tier design used the previous year. Here are the key findings:

  • Improved participation: The number of employees who participated in the step program increased from 64.7 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2012.
  • Increased quarterly incentive goal attainment: The number of employees who reached at least one quarterly incentive grew from 36.3 percent in 2011 to 51.4 percent in 2012.
  • Higher daily steps by the same individuals: The average number of steps per day taken by the same employees increased by 27 percent (2,817 to 3,573 steps per day) between 2011 and 2012.

These findings suggest that offering employees additional options for setting fitness goals—including ones that feel easier to reach—may drive greater fitness participation.

A multi-tiered incentive design offers something for everyone, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. It meets employees where they are, no matter their individual fitness levels. The bottom tier may help motivate employees who are new to exercise or fairly inactive, while the middle and top tiers retain enough challenge for employees who are already active or fit. The bottom tier also allows less active employees to experience success. That, in turn, may give them the confidence to try for the next tier.

If you are thinking of switching to a multi-tiered incentive design, here are some strategies that may help you implement it:

  • Communicate the changes to your employees. Consider building a campaign around your new incentive program that highlights the greater variety of options for setting and reaching fitness goals.
  • Offer multiple tracking tools. If possible, offer a variety of affordable, easy-to-use wearable devices for tracking steps and other activities.
  • Provide support. Train health coaches, wellness champions, and fellow co-workers to offer support, guidance, and inspiration to employees participating in your new incentive program.

When you make even small changes to your incentive design, you may see big gains in participation and improved fitness outcomes for your employees.

Jonathan Barry is associate vice president of reporting, analytics, and evaluation at Healthyroads. Barry and his teams aspire to promote research insights and strategic intelligence to assist both individual clients and the overall population health industry. Barry draws on an extensive range of past research, employee benefits, and health management-related experiences, including work with a private university healthcare system, public retail company, and consulting/brokerage organization. Throughout  his career, he has worked  with a diverse range of employer groups on strategic health risk management initiatives. Barry earned his BS in Biology and Health Policy & Administration from Wake Forest University and his MS in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.