The Power of Gamification in Wellness Programs

February 3, 2020

Americans have a reputation for being a little out of shape compared to our global peers.

For individuals, that’s a significant problem that affects quality of life and life expectancy. But the negative outcomes don’t stop there.

For employers, our collective health is having a negative effect on the bottom line. Over the past half-decade, medical costs for U.S. employers have surpassed inflation rates, rising an average of five to six percent per year. And that’s actually an improvement: In the decade before that, they rose an average of 12 percent per year.

One of the major reasons that number has dropped? Corporate wellness programs. Many large and innovative organizations worldwide now use health and wellness programs to reduce healthcare costs.

Wellness programs cost an average of $36-90 per employee per year, compared to about $14,800 per employee for employer-sponsored health insurance. A 2017 survey from United Healthcare found that employers saw nearly a $4 ROI on every dollar spent on wellness programs.

A wellness plan is a great way for businesses to save money on healthcare costs—but just having one in place doesn’t do you any good. You need active buy-in from everyone.

That’s where gamification comes in.

59 percent of employees say wellness programs have made a positive impact on their health.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification uses game mechanics like competition, incentives, and achievement bonuses to make a program more enticing and engaging.

Sixty-two percent of employers use gamification methods to engage employees in health and wellness initiatives. And 59 percent of employees say wellness programs have made a positive impact on their health.

There are many ways to combine gamification with your wellness programs. Here are a few examples of how you can implement a gamified wellness program into your organization:

  • Reward employees who participated in the most road races, or went to the most yoga classes during the quarter.
  • Institute an organization-wide walking program.
  • Give employees wearable fitness trackers and encourage them to team up to achieve goals.
  • Quiz your employees on their knowledge of wellness-related topics and reward the winners.
  • Put a Nintendo Switch with Ring Fit Adventure in your break room.

Game mechanics can help break down lofty goals like “run one mile every day” into smaller, more achievable short-term goals. Employees can work to accomplish them while at work, or throughout the course of their day. There are also elements of team-building and camaraderie, as employees team up and hold each other accountable to achieve goals. By encouraging employees to take part, you convert passivity into activity while employees develop new, healthier habits and stronger relationships with their peers.

Gamification Is Simple to Implement

If you thought a gamified wellness strategy might be too expensive or difficult for your HR team to manage, think again. A great gamified strategy can be easy to implement and low in cost.

Good games are simple, and they appeal to people’s natural inclination to take part in community-building. Meanwhile, participants learn how to make healthier decisions and how to progress towards their fitness goals.

With the advent of wearable technology, wellness services, and data collection, instituting a gamified wellness program is easier than ever, and it provides many benefits besides better health. Let’s take a closer look at four of them: reduced costs, greater productivity, a greater sense of personal responsibility for participants, and a stronger employee community.

Reduced Costs

Individuals who choose unhealthy habits are often more expensive to care for and insure, adding to the high cost of healthcare. Here are a few examples:

  • Obese Americans spend about 36 percent more on healthcare costs and 77 percent more on medications than people of healthy weight. They’re also 20 times more likely to develop diabetes, two and one-half times more prone to heart disease, and twice as vulnerable to cancer, hypertension, and asthma.
  • Inadequate exercise also increases the risk of many ailments. More than 67 percent of Americans are not regularly active and 25 percent are considered sedentary. As a group, these people will likely cost more to employ in the long run because their greater health issues could lead to increased absence, reduced productivity, and higher health insurance premiums.
  • Smokers average more than $2,000 in annual worker’s compensation costs, compared to $176 from non-smokers.

Here are just a few of the ways gamification could help reduce these health issues:

  • To help overweight or less active individuals get more exercise, start a walking program or offer rewards for meeting activity goals.
  • Invite smokers to use fitness trackers in a friendly competition to increase their activity level, with rewards for high achievers. By incentivizing healthy habits, you may motivate participants to cut back on smoking since it hinders their ability to compete.
When it’s done right, gamification can help employees feel their best while turning wellness programs into cost-saving machines.

Another smart way to reduce costs is by leveraging health insurance premiums themselves. Take Ochsner Health System, for example. They created a wellness game that was so popular more than 85 percent of their 10,000 benefits-eligible employees took part.

Employees who earned enough points in the game received a year-long discount on their health insurance premiums. More than half of the participants reached the highest level in the game and qualified for the largest discount!

What’s more, the company saved money despite the discount to employees because people developed healthier habits and needed fewer costly medical treatments.

When it’s done right, gamification can help employees feel their best while turning wellness programs into cost-saving machines. But the best gamification strategy will vary from one organization to the next. Use your knowledge of your employees and your company culture to determine the most relevant and appealing ways to gamify your wellness program.

Greater Productivity

“Time is money” may be a cliche, but like most cliches, there is some truth to it. When employees are out sick, work hours are lost and productivity suffers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that productivity losses from missed work cost employers $1,685 per employee every year. Full-time U.S. workers who are obese or have other chronic health issues miss 450 million more workdays per year than healthy employees.

Many of these losses are preventable with a solid wellness plan that includes gamification to increase employee participation and engagement. Every day on the job rather than out sick preserves productivity that would otherwise be lost.

Incentivizing exercise may give your employees greater capacity to be productive.

Even small health improvements can make a difference. The CDC found that just a one percent decrease in excess weight and in elevated levels of blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol can save up to $103 annually in medical costs per person. Doctors agree that exercise is essential for improving these metrics.

Incentivizing exercise may also give your employees greater capacity to be productive. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria, which are the “power plants” of cells, giving your brain and body more fuel to work with. Through exercise and maintaining healthy habits, employees will have more energy and be better equipped to do their best work.

Research also suggests that exercise may help prevent mental slowdowns associated with age. Older people who exercise have more brain cells than their sedentary peers, which may help them preserve mental skills longer. By instituting a wellness plan and encouraging participation by gamifying it, you help older employees avoid hitting a productivity wall as they age. You also help younger ones develop healthier habits that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

A New Sense of Personal Responsibility

Every company should encourage a sense of personal responsibility and accountability in its employees. Employees who feel invested in their job outperform their disengaged peers by 202 percent while enjoying greater satisfaction and engagement.

There are many ways to help employees buy into your organization, but a wellness program is one of the best. Gamifying the wellness program makes the process easier.

Modern gamification brings wellness programs online, giving employees tools to manage their goals and chart their success. This involvement helps foster a greater sense of personal responsibility for their wellness efforts.

Workers use their computers and mobile devices daily, so adding a gamified wellness program app to their devices makes it easy for them to participate. Before you know it, your wellness program will become part of their routine and give them something fun and competitive to do that makes workdays more enjoyable.

To encourage better fitness results, Harvard Business Review research shows that asking employees to sign a pre-commitment pledge to do their best appeals to their sense of accountability—no matter what their current fitness level. The research also showed that using certain behavioral economic and game principles can improve outcomes:

“[T]hey received points that were allocated upfront which they stood to lose if they failed to achieve their goal. This element harnesses the concept of loss aversion—people’s tendency to be more motivated to avoid losing something they already have than to gain an equivalent new benefit.”

In your own wellness program, whether you leverage the data-tracking capabilities of wearables or use a quiz management site like ProProfs or Quibblo to test employees’ wellness knowledge, game principles will help employees commit to their personal and company fitness goals. Nurturing commitment, accountability, and responsibility in your workforce is valuable regardless of the context—whether it’s delivering on a project or reaching a walking goal.

A Stronger Community and Culture

Building your organization’s sense of community helps strengthen its culture. You might say that these are the ultimate goals of gamifying your wellness program.

Gamification helps to do this because it’s social by design. Gamifying your goals encourages communal participation. When everyone is welcome and everyone’s help is needed, chances are greater that most people will get involved and work together to achieve common goals.

Learn more about culture in our free ebook, The Definitive Guide to Company Culture

For instance, if you create a program where company divisions compete against each other to walk the most miles and win a great prize, most employees will want to take part because they know their group needs them and every step they take matters. This kind of healthy competition between groups may be one of the best motivators for your staff.

Although personal wellness is an individual pursuit, gamified wellness takes advantage of social relationships to improve exercise, nutrition, and other healthy habits. As it does so, it brings individuals, teams, and the entire organization closer together.

One example of gamified wellness done right is TourDeFIT.com’s Triple Threat Challenge. In this challenge, employees are asked to adopt one healthy habit per week. Employees and dependents can track their progress online, form teams and rivalries, and earn prizes—all while accessing company-provided wellness resources.

When it’s social, it’s fun—and everybody wants to be able to have fun at work.

The Bottom Line on Gamification in Wellness Programs

Healthcare costs are skyrocketing in the U.S., but wellness programs can help preserve employees’ health and quality of life while reducing employer costs and preventing productivity losses. To get the greatest benefits from wellness programs, gamification leverages behavioral principles to instill personal responsibility and encourage collaboration within an organization. As a result, employees learn to work together to achieve goals and tackle problems, which benefits and strengthens the entire organization.

About the Author

Eric GoldscheinEric Goldschein is an editor and writer at Fundera, a marketplace for small business financial solutions. He writes extensively on finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, and small business trends.

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