Cary Cooper: Incentives can aid staff health support

For organisations, it pays to be healthy.

Cary Cooper - Lancaster

The early years of the workplace wellbeing agenda has definitively settled that debate, no matter how often the bottom line benefits have to be reiterated in boardrooms across the world.

But individual employees are not about to go rifling through the latest set of results as motivation for an exercise kick, or a rethink of their work-life balance. So do employers need a more direct way of incentivising the health of their people? There are successful precedents for this kind of strategy.

The American pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson has provided financial incentives for employees participating in a number of its programmes, providing a range of health-related support and coaching. And it appears to have worked. Smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol levels have all improved markedly over time. However, the success of this approach is all about nuance. Pound signs don’t simply equate to pure motivation.

A clear risk is that organisations turn health at work into something that’s transactional, or worse, parental. If the incentive is about simply signing up to a scheme, people are less likely to commit to action and ingraining habits that last.

There are subtler ways to incentivise that can encourage more positive behaviours, and as part of a clear commitment on behalf of the employer. Some organisations reward staff with extra days’ leave, the rationale being that paid sick leave is a perk that they haven’t benefited from over the years. This is the kind of policy which communicates more about an ethos which values health and wellbeing.

There is a message about work-life balance tied up in the reward too. It says ‘it’s okay to take time out’ and that the organisation does not expect or want people to be slaves to the office.

Whatever the finer points of any incentive scheme that employers choose to adopt, there is one common thread: its success can be largely attributed to the skill of managers in communicating and overseeing the programme within their teams. There are a huge range of factors which could affect how fair or motivating the scheme is, from long-term health conditions to workloads and resources.

One size certainly does not fit all, so it is vital to take a strong base with wellbeing strategy and allow some free rein to personalise how it’s delivered in practice.

Applying pound signs to shift absence data simply will not work. As Einstein said, information is not knowledge and as with any health initiative, incentives need to be based on a clear appreciation of individual priorities and perspectives, developed through good managerial and personal relationships.

Sir Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.