How to create a workplace programme to incentivise healthy behaviour


Need to know

  • An employer should pick a broad range of healthy behaviours to reward to avoid alienating groups of employees.
  • Short challenges can help to improve behaviours but a continual programme will encourage more employees to adopt healthy habits for the long term.
  • An employer should select rewards and incentives carefully; for example, donations to charity work well but small treats can also encourage healthier lifestyles.

Most of us know we should take more exercise, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and get plenty of sleep. But, with few of us sticking to these rules, a health incentive programme could give individuals the extra push they need.

These workplace schemes reward employees who adopt healthy behaviours such as giving up smoking, taking more exercise or losing weight. Although still unusual in the UK, these types of programmes are much more common in the US.

The popularity of these programmes in the US can be attributed to the fact that employers have a much more tangible reason to offer them, says Mark Witte, principal at Aon Employee Benefits. “If [an employer is] paying for [its] employees’ medical insurance it’s sensible to incentivise them to be more healthy because it will help to reduce claims and control premiums,” he says. “But, even without this financial incentive, it makes sense for employers to encourage employees to be healthier. It translates into improved productivity, less absence and better engagement.”

Short-term challenges

Although the UK has a markedly different healthcare system, these incentive schemes are beginning to emerge here. These tend to be much more focused on short-term challenges, with prizes given to the individual or team that clocks up the highest number of steps or loses the most weight.

But while these can be successful, there can be a drawback, says Tim Barnes, business development director at Healthcare RM. “Once the programme’s over you find that most people will go back to their old behaviour,” he says. “[Employers] need to keep promoting the right behaviours to encourage long-term change and engage those employees who are harder to reach.”

Variety of healthy behaviours

Focusing on a variety of healthy behaviours is also important. Incentivising one aspect of health, such as giving up smoking or losing weight, limits the programme’s reach and risks alienating employees who cannot participate because they do not smoke or are already a healthy weight.

The type of reward on offer will also influence the success of the programme. As well as obvious gaffs such as offering unhealthy prizes such as alcohol or chocolate, sometimes the reward can have unintended consequences. Witte explains: “Rewarding attendance may seem an obvious way to reduce absence but, if employees feel they have to come in even when they’re ill, this can lead to presenteeism.”

To play it safe, a donation to charity is a common incentive on offer in these types of schemes. “This can work well,” says Barnes. “I’ve also seen [organisations] offer tickets to sporting events and even the promise of a senior executive doing something daft if employees hit their goals.”

Even relatively small incentives can work well. For example, a key part of provider Vitality Health’s medical insurance and protection products is its Vitality programme. This gives employees who adopt healthy lifestyles discounts from organisations such as British Airways and Champneys, as well as its active rewards, which include free weekly Starbucks and cinema tickets.

Introducing these active rewards has encouraged more people to engage with the programme, says Greg Levine, director of corporate and intermediated business at Vitality Health. “One year after we introduced our active rewards, we found that as well as a six-fold increase in the number of members hitting the weekly activity thresholds, 34% of the previously sedentary group were now registered as active,” he explains. “These rewards have helped to drive real change.”