3 min read

Motivating Employees To Better Health...Is That Even Possible?!

Nov 19, 2014 6:30:00 AM

Motivating_EmployeesIt’s no secret the rising costs of employer-sponsored health plans have led to an explosion in workplace wellness programs. For decades, employers have turned to employee health promotion and wellness programs in an attempt to help employees get and stay healthy.

In some cases, the efforts have an impact on individual employees, though I’ll contend the few who make changes are already motivated. In many instances, the results have been mediocre at best. In the world of big wellness incentives and penalties, why do we see little, if any, sustainable behavior change? The answer lies in motivation.

To truly understand how individuals are motivated, you have to first accept these truths:

  • Human behavior is complex and in many instances we are irrational and predictably so. I will refer you to Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational for a fun, insightful look into behavioral economics. It’s well worth the time to read. And the laugh-out-loud moments will make you forget you’re learning something.
  • There is an innate desire in human beings to be autonomous, work toward mastery, and have a sense of purpose. We don’t want to be controlled, but rather want to have control over our own destinies. If you haven’t read Daniel Pink’s book Drive you’ll want to check it out. While he’s primarily addressing motivation in our work lives, a lot of the concepts can certainly be applied to how individuals are motivated to achieve better health.
  • Rewards have limited impact on motivation, and in some instances, can be counterproductive. For further reading, I’d suggest Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards.
  • Motivation can be described as extrinsic or intrinsic, although both may influence behavior in the same situation.
    • Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a task or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Rewards/penalties may initially result in a desired behavior, but over time, can result in the opposite effect.
    • Intrinsic motivation can be described as engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding.

Once we agree these are true, the answers to the questions “How can I motivate my employees to be healthier”, or “How can I get my employees to change their behaviors” is obvious—you can’t—at least not in a systematic, predictable, step-by-step way.

Consider the “Biggest Loser” contests that have infiltrated American workplaces. Perhaps you’ve hosted or participated in one of these contests. If you have, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Did the winner maintain his/her weight loss beyond a year? If your workplace is like the multitude of others that have tried a weight loss challenge, the person who “won” likely gained back all of the weight he/she lost and no sustainable behavior change occurred.

Sure, participants lost weight during the contest, fueled by friendly competition, prize money, and other largely extrinsic factors. But if we are honest about these types of programs, they fail the majority of the time.

Paying people to be healthier may work in the short-term. It may result in compliance. But rarely, if ever, does it result in engagement and long-term behavior change.

If you believe the above to be true, you realize you can’t reward/penalize someone into better health. However, you can foster an environment that makes the healthy choice the easier choice. You can provide programs that are voluntary and aimed at helping people achieve better health, on their own terms, when they are ready. You can be an employer that values employee wellbeing and has engaged employees who not only like what they do, but are healthier as a result.



Nicole Fallowfield

Written by Nicole Fallowfield

Nicole is a Principal, Director of Administration, and part of the executive leadership team. She is accountable for the entire employee experience, from interactions with human resources and technology to the facilities in which our employees work. Nicole previously served as the Director of Wellbeing and EB Operations at Gibson. She is also a member of Gibson’s Board of Directors Additionally, Nicole is responsible for the health and wellbeing strategic leadership for Gibson’s clients. She is also a member of Gibson’s Board of Directors. Read Nicole's Full Bio