For years, benefit leaders charged with overseeing corporate wellness programs were satisfied with using engagement as a measure of success. More people participating in the wellness program meant happier, healthier employees, which meant a stronger workforce, right?

As it turns out, that’s not exactly the case. Executives started to acknowledge that engagement alone wouldn’t drive long-term results. When a survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health confirmed that companies were spending a lot of money on wellness with little to show for it, C-suite executives everywhere began wondering whether they were spending their money in the right place.

After all, if a program can’t create lasting health behavior change and garner good ROI, what’s the point?

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To reconcile this dilemma, companies are shifting their focus away from simple engagement and toward measuring long-term habit changes. Done right, workplace health programs can provide increased productivity, diminished healthcare costs and lower absenteeism, according to multiple studies.

Unfortunately, however, the line between right and wrong isn’t always clear.

Fixing the broken wellness structure

The wellness industry has a long history of relying on extrinsic rewards to drive wellness programs, which, when designed well, can boost sign-up and week-one engagement rates.

The real challenge today is pivoting employees’ focus from the reward to their own personal motivations for improving their health. No matter how big the reward, without intrinsic motivation, participation ends the moment the reward goes away, eliminating any chance of long-term health behavior change. And without behavior change, ROI is impossible.

To go beyond rewards and drive behavior change, there are some crucial first steps:

  • Set baselines.Measuring improvement is nearly impossible without determining a starting point. Encourage employees to get a checkup when starting a program, and, if possible, record their biometrics. Send out self-report surveys before and after a wellness program is implemented to measure the impact. With the right datasets, you can record numbers on absenteeism and health care costs at the program’s outset to determine ROI 18 to 24 months later.
  • Refocus your rewards. Rewards aren’t inherently good or bad. The trick is in how and when they’re offered. Offering rewards that complement (rather than distract from) employees’ intrinsic motivation requires relevant rewards, such as exercise clothing and equipment, juicers, or fitness wearables. The best rewards not only acknowledge milestones for employees, but also provide extra motivation to continue developing healthier lifestyles and good habits. Try offering rewards that are appropriately scaled to the milestone you’re trying to celebrate — but never so large as to overshadow the achievement itself.
  • Avoid paternalism.Employees don’t want to feel like their workplaces dictate their exercise and dietary habits. Avoid strictly financial incentives because they can actually demotivate employees.

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To better engage intrinsic motivation, involve employees in the process. Getting their input and using some of their suggestions helps inspire them to be agents of their own health. People tend to commit more effort to initiatives they feel responsible for than to ones they feel were assigned to them.

Once they’re motivated, push toward behavior change

Now that they’re motivated, take advantage of that to create habit change.

Intrinsic motivation may last longer than extrinsic, but creating true long-term change requires repeated activity for at least six straight weeks. If long-term health behavior change is one of your goals, your wellness program should focus on helping employees create sustainable lifestyle changes and reward disciplined habit formation down the road.

Setting baselines for steps per day or gym visits per month is a start, but creating a program that helps employees set habit goals and promotes healthy environmental changes is better. By the time employees reach their longest-term goals, those healthy habits will be just another part of their daily routine — a permanent change in behavior.

Even the most well-designed wellness program requires patience. Positive ROI takes a long time to achieve, just as new habits do. But by encouraging healthier lifestyles through long-term behavior changes, companies can create stronger, more productive workforces.

Cutter is the founder and CEO of LifeDojo.

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