Employee wellness challenges are very popular corporate programs – from walking challenges to weight loss challenges. But these challenges actually come with a number of issues which can make them more of a problem than a solution.
1. Change is temporary
One of the big drawbacks of these challenges is that they are not effective in creating any lasting changes in employee behaviors. Typically, employees will engage in a given healthy behavior for the duration of the challenge but fall off as soon as it’s over (if they make it that far). This is because the challenge prize is an extrinsic motivator rather than an intrinsic motivator. Extrinsic motivators are simply not as potent as internally-driven motivators. If one of the goals of your wellness program is to change employee behaviors in the long-term in meaningful ways that will improve their health, challenges will not achieve that.
2. Workplace wellness challenges don’t teach skills and strategies
Another reason why change does not last following these challenges is that they don’t provide employees with the skills and tools they need to implement the challenge objectives in a meaningful way. Instead, left to their own devices, employees will find a strategy that works for the time being, typically forcing the habit. Strategies are hodge-podge and not sustainable rather than accounting their day-to-day reality in the long-term. A more effective way to impact employee health is to focus on habit-building programs.
3. Challenges can be triggering and stigmatizing
For someone struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating, weight loss and fitness challenges can be triggering for them. This puts their recovery in jeopardy and can result in their sliding back into disordered behaviors. These challenges are also inherently fatphobic, equating weight with health and overlooking the fact that there is more to someone’s weight than eating and exercise habits. Employees in larger bodies may feel singled out or unduly pressured in the course of these challenges. Indeed, according to Aubrey Gordon, weight-focused programs in particular may compound inequities amongst employees. If you want to foster a safe, inclusive work environment, then it is best to avoid these wellness challenges.
4. Success tactics may not be healthy
When there is the promise of a prize and the challenge is short-term, some employees may resort to tactics that are not healthful for the sake of winning. Obviously, employing unhealthy tactics undermines the intent of the challenge and can create other issues for employee health. So is it worth the risk? (The answer is “no).
So what should you offer if employee wellness programs aren’t effective?
An effective employee wellness program must take into account the unique needs of your staff. When is your most difficult season? What are their major stressors? What are their biggest health concerns (if you know of any)? It must be educational as well as practical and motivational. It should teach appropriate skills and strategies and leave employees with doable action items. There should also be some variety in the program to appeal to different learning styles: some webinars, some demonstrations, some interactive and hands-on options. Above all, your employees need to feel that it is a program that truly has their best interests at heart.