Well-being incentives for employees remains a popular topic in the world of work, with many disputes between leaders on the purpose, responsibility and impact of incentives. The argument is usually not that they’re ineffective — it’s that incentivizing a healthy lifestyle is beyond the purview of an employer. Companies should only consider the output of their people, not the inputs they bring to the job.
It’s easy to see why this approach is appealing for a certain type of manager. It lets employers off the hook for the conditions in which their people work. It’s equally clear why it can’t stand up to much scrutiny. Employees who experience resilience, optimism, purpose and other markers of well-being are 32% more productive at work. Corporate well-being incentives are as good for business as they are for people.
Still, there’s something about the argument that feels true. Should corporations be in the business of influencing what staffers eat and whether they work out? At Limeade, we think that question misses a pretty clear fact — employers must be in the business of caring about their employees. When they do, their well-being programs and incentives will reflect that care, serving both the people and the business.
Why well-being incentives for employees matter now more than ever
Any case to be made for companies limiting their interest and involvement in employees’ lives met its match in the COVID-19 pandemic. Removed from many of the activities and communities that usually served as social safety nets, people began to rely on work for a greater share of their daily interactions.
Employers quickly found themselves managing an increasingly distracted and stressed-out workforce. People were working more hours with less interaction, creating a toxic situation. Burnout spiked. According to Limeade research, 38% of employees listed “struggling with burnout” as one of the most stressful aspects of their jobs during the pandemic.
To get quality work, employers needed to address the whole person. Mental health resources, mindfulness breaks, exercise challenges, time for healthy lunches, all of these corporate nudges were often the only reminders employees received to step away from their desks and take the breaks necessary to be successful at their jobs, not to mention within their lives.
Employers are under no obligation to incentivize well-being for their employees. But the pandemic proved that they may be in the best position to step up. Work is so interwoven into people’s lives, it’s one of the few consistent influences capable of pushing real behavior change.
Being clear about the goals of your incentive-based well-being programs
To realize that change, companies can’t afford to take the narrow view any more. Corporate wellness programs used to focus strictly on physical health — and the premium reductions that came with improving it — but today’s well-being programs benefit from a broader, whole-person approach.
The reasoning is every bit as business-minded as reducing healthcare costs. By improving the overall well-being of employees — their financial and emotional health as well as their physical health — employers have an opportunity to holistically improve their lives.
That positive shift does double-duty by improving not just costs but outcomes. Employees are healthier on the whole, reducing healthcare costs, but also more productive and more likely to stay with the company, reducing turnover costs. One in five employees we surveyed have left a job because their employers did not care about their well-being.
That means reevaluating what activities your well-being program focuses on, and being transparent about how incentives are accrued and distributed. Focusing only on the physical and stopping at healthy food credits or steps challenges won’t cut it. The broader the scope of recommendations and rewards, the more clear a company cares for the whole person.
Understanding how incentives can support — or deter — healthy lifestyles
Not all employee well-being incentives show care equally, however. Cash, for example, can be effective, but it’s also transactional. It doesn’t necessarily convey that employers are invested in their people so much as it shows employers understand the value of a healthy employee and are willing to pay for it. Points face a similar dilemma, with the added downside that they’re not always redeemable for activities or items that further encourage healthy lifestyles.
Finding ways to encourage intrinsic motivation, rather than relying on external incentives, will always do a better job of making employees feel cared for. Intrinsic motivators tap into the same emotions as employee care — purpose, curiosity, passion — reinforcing the overall feeling of organizational support.
One of the most direct ways to do this is by rewarding well-being efforts with social giving. This can look like pure dollars donated, a donation match, time off to volunteer, anything that rewards employees for taking care of themselves by allowing them to take care of each other. This directly shifts the motivation from external to internal, and has the added benefit of encouraging people to give back, which can have a great effect on mental health.
How care aligns people and business outcomes
Just like with employees, motivation matters. If your company sets its corporate well-being policy in the hopes of controlling employees and reducing costs, it’s likely to feel punitive and like an overreach. If, on the other hand, your company embraces a broader employee health and well-being strategy that looks out for the whole person, employees will see that any incentives are coming from a place of care.
When you care for your employees, you’re caring for your company’s best asset. Their well-being is also the company’s well-being. Any effort you take to encourage positive choices and support a healthy lifestyle among employees is great for them, yes, but it’s also great for the bottom line. Care doesn’t depend on altruism, just on doing what’s best for your people and your business.