To Encourage Fitness, ‘Carrots,’ ‘Sticks’—or Active Design?

Turn sedentary offices into spaces that encourage healthier lifestyles

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Feb 29, 2016
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Enticements to get employees to increase their physical activity are most effective when people are at risk of having an incentive payment or prize they've received taken back, indicates new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. That suggests a punishment—or “stick”—works better to change people’s behavior than a reward—or “carrot.”

But something a simple as making workplace design changes also leads employees to actively burn calories, another recent report shows.

Loss-Aversion Motivates

In the University of Pennsylvania study, published Feb. 16 on the website of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, 281 participants were given the goal of reaching 7,000 steps per day for the 26-week study period. The researchers found that:

  • Participants offered a modest financial reward each day the goal was achieved (the gain-incentive group) did no better than those offered no reward at all (the control group). Participants in both groups achieved the daily goal approximately 30 to 35 percent of the time.
  • Participants who, at the start of the study period, were paid an amount equal to meeting the goal every day and told they had to pay back a day’s worth of incentive for each day the goal wasn’t met (the loss-incentive group) achieved the goal 45 percent of the time, amounting to an almost 50 percent increase over the other groups.

“Most workplace wellness programs typically offer the reward after the goal is achieved,” said senior author Kevin G. Volpp, M.D., a professor of medicine and health care management and director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. “Our findings demonstrate that the potential of losing a reward is a more powerful motivator.”

Wellness consultant Danna Korn said she’s “not a huge fan of academic studies” based on relatively small samples, but nevertheless, “I agree that the most effective approach is to say, ‘Here’s your reward but we’re going to take it away if you don’t make the right effort.’ Because loss aversion works.”

But such an approach can be hard to implement, said Korn, CEO of corporate wellness firm Sonic Boom Wellness in Carlsbad, Calif., as clawing back rewards can be administratively difficult. “If someone gets a payout in the form of health care premium reduction, it’s tough to take that back and charge them more later,” she noted. “Having said that, some clients do it and we have not seen employee resistance.”

Efforts vs. Outcomes

For incentive programs to be effective, Korn advised, “We should not be rewarding outcomes, we should be rewarding efforts. We should say that for every small health improvement you make, we’re going to reward you in some way, even if it’s just socially acknowledging that you made the effort.”

Organizations should ultimately be striving for intrinsic motivation, “and that comes through social recognition. Don’t underestimate trophy value,” Korn noted, “even giving out cheap little water bottles that employees can put on their desk so when a colleague says, ‘Oh, you got the water bottle. You must have participated in that wellness contest,” they can say, ‘Yeah, I did!” Those kinds of things are far more powerful in the long run than handing someone $100 bucks to take a health assessment.”

Consider Active Design

There’s another approach to prodding employees to get more exercise that relies on subtler but still effective methods. “Active design” is the process of structuring the workplace to inherently promote movement.

“Turning those sedentary office environments into spaces that can encourage healthier lifestyles is the central idea behind active design,” explained Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy at KI, a Green Bay, Wis.-based office furniture design firm. KI published a research report on active design best practices last year.

“Workplace wellness programs aren’t enough,” Webb said. “Many people don’t exercise, even when a formal fitness program is offered.”

Some active design solutions involve extensive workspace reconstruction, but other options are simpler and less costly.

Taking the Stairs

Encouraging use of stairs over elevators is a key active design element. In older buildings, Webb pointed out, stairs are often hidden behind elevators. “While it’s nice to have a grand staircase that employees can walk up—and many newer buildings are incorporating them into their designs front and center—even in existing buildings with stairs in the back, employers can improve lighting and brightly paint interior stairwells.”

No one wants to go down “a staircase that is old, damp and dreary,” Webb said.

Organizations also can post signs that encourage use of the stairs. “Way-finding aids and simple signage reminders to use the stairs can increase stair usage by 42 percent on its own,” Webb said. But “only 29 percent of the employees that we surveyed said that their offices encouraged stair use, and only half said that subconsciously inspiring people to take the stairs was a standard practice. I think it’s a huge opportunity for improvement.”

Another simple step is keeping the door to the staircase open, if your fire code allows this.

Other active design tips Webb suggested include:

  • Provide access to natural light. “If you can create a space that promotes movement toward daylight, people will move just to get toward the daylight,” Webb said. “Daylighting also has been shown to increase workplace performance.”
  • Encourage face-to-face communications. “Providing a layout that encourages face-to-face interaction over electronic communication can promote movement and increase team-building,” Webb noted. “If you can see somebody, you’re 40 percent more likely to walk over to them rather than call or e-mail. That inherently promotes movement.”
  • Incorporate height-adjustable work surfaces. “Many studies have shown the health advantages of sit/stand desks,” Webb said. “A 200-pound man can burn nearly 30 percent more calories by toggling between sitting and standing over the course of the day. It tones muscles and improves posture, ramps up metabolism, and burns extra calories.”

Five years ago, it might cost $1,200 for a sit/stand desk, Webb pointed out. “Now, they’re becoming something of a commodity and that cost has been cut in half.”

Tying it All Together

“There’s so much to be said for encouraging small improvements in health behaviors,” said Korn, “whether it’s telling people that they have to get up and go talk to one another instead of using IM [instant messaging] that day—maybe you have a whole IM-free day, maybe you have walking meetings, even if it’s a five-minute meeting instead of just sitting in an office. If it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator, that’s great. And, along with that, reward people with social recognition so I get to say to you, “Gee, I saw you taking the stairs instead of the elevator today, nice job.” And maybe I can give you points for that, or I somehow acknowledge you.”

She added, “That’s where social contagion and social networking become a powerful component in holding people accountable, and in motivating and inspiring them.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow me on Twitter.

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