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Launching a 'Winning' Wellness Contest

As more employers emphasize and provide incentives to improve employee health and wellness, they are also looking for ways to increase employee buy-in for healthier lifestyles. Enter the workplace wellness contest.

Whether the focus is on eating better, losing weight or moving around more, workplace wellness contests can create an atmosphere of excitement for things that many employees would rather avoid. “People don’t always do what’s best for them, or even what they would want themselves to do,” said Fran Miller, president of Health Advocate Inc.’s wellness division in San Francisco. “Contests provide a boost, help increase the number of employees participating in the wellness program and generate a lot of positive feedback.”

Divisional Contests at Kroger Co.

Wellness contests can provide a sense of cohesion and direction for wellness efforts, also, especially in companies that are large or have employees in multiple locations. Before Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. developed its companywide contests, each of its more than 60 divisions and business units (with more than 339,000 employees) was free to do what it wanted. “Some were doing their own thing and not all were at the same level,” said Theresa Monti, the company’s vice president of corporate benefits.

To address that, Kroger started a branded “I Can Do That! Walking Challenge” (co-sponsored with General Mills) and provided each division and business unit with a 2012 budget allocation to cover at least one 10-week challenge per year. The contest encourages participants to use a pedometer, which tracks the number of steps they take each day. Participants then log their weekly progress on a website.

In a related “Real Health Story Essay Contest,” Krogeremployees may submit a brief essay on how their new healthy activity has improved their overall health.

Each Kroger division and business unit can choose the prize for the winner of each contest. For example, one division offered a week-long stay at a health camp in Florida to the winner of its contests.

In 2012, over 32,000 Kroger employees participated in its walking challenges, logging 3.7 million steps and losing 57,500 pounds in total. In 2013, the company plans to expand the number of challenges as part of an effort to build a culture focused on health. “We will be tracking our success across the organization,” said Monti.

‘Biggest Losers’ Win at American Licorice

Success with wellness-promotion efforts that include a companywide challenge is reported by American Licorice Co., based in Union City, Calif. The creator of movie theater staples Red Vines and Sour Punch created several programs that target employee health and wellness. One successful initiative is its incentive-based “Biggest Loser” challenge. The 13-week contest features on-site weigh-ins to help employees track their progress toward shedding pounds through diet and exercise. The team or individual who loses the greatest body weight by the end of the competition is the winner.

Nearly half of American Licorice’s headquarters staff members have joined the challenge, now in its third year, with a 50 percent increase after the program’s inaugural year; 71 percent of program participants have lost weight.

Steps for Wellness Contest Success

Deciding to hold a contest is just the first step. Employers need to make sure their contests are a success. Here are a few ways to do that:

Make wellness contests fun.

Wellness challenges should not be viewed as another workplace chore. “It is important to maintain the ‘fun factor,’ ” said David Roddenberry, co-founder of HealthyWage in New York. “That is an important part of getting people to change their behavior.” Therefore, any successful wellness-related challenge or contest must get—and keep—people excited to participate.

A strong, well-communicated team-based program can be a good way to build that excitement, and intracompany competition can keep up interest. We have had companies set up teams based on different functions, sites or locations and then report ongoing, aggregated results at the team level, providing increased motivation throughout the duration of the contest,” said Health Advocate’s Miller.

In “matchup” competitions organized by HealthyWage, employees create teams of five that compete against other teams within the company, or against teams from other local organizations. The rules discourage unhealthful tactics by limiting the 12-week weight loss competitions to 16.7 percent of body weight and one-week losses to 1.5 percent. Participants weigh in at a local health club, and the winning teams receive cash prizes.

Award prizes.

Most contests end with a prize, so it is important for employees to know exactly what the prize is and what they need to do to win it. Some employers award smaller prizes to drive engagement and participation, such as water bottles, running gear and other fitness-related items, to employees who diligently complete their weekly activity tracking. Employers can also enter employees in a prize drawing when they reach certain milestones, such as losing a certain percentage, say 10 percent, of their weight.

It is a good idea, however, to have a large and specific grand prize at the end of the contest, such as gift cards, wellness trips, or electronic gadgets, like an iPad.

Find the right length of time for the challenge.

Contests need to last long enough to give employees a chance to form and maintain meaningful new habits and to see some positive results, but not so long that boredom and fatigue set in and employees lose interest. In many cases, contests lasting 12 weeks meet both those criteria.

How frequently a company holds these contests will depend on the size of the company and the demand to participate. Moreover, opening these contests up to family members can be a good way to extend lifestyle changes beyond the workplace.

Find a wellness champion.

It is critical to have someone at each site to act as a champion for any wellness contest or challenge. “They need to own the challenge,” said Monti.

Along with support from senior management, this champion can focus on rallying the troops. “You need to keep people engaged throughout the challenge,” Monti said. “Otherwise, participation can dwindle. This individual should be someone who is passionate about health and wellness.”

When employees buy in to a challenge or contest, they are more likely to recruit and exhort their peers to participate and keep going when interest flags.

Maintain Wellness Momentum

Once employees have been successful in their weight loss and fitness efforts, employers can consider offering new challenges that focus on maintaining and building on those changes. Having these ongoing contests can help employees maintain their momentum. No matter what types of contests employers offer or how often, “it is important to evaluate what went well and what didn’t in order to improve it for the future,” said Miller. “Some employers like to run the same contest on a regular basis, such as annually. What is effective in those cases is increasing the goals, such as the number of steps, to make it more challenging for participants.”

When wellness contests are not successful, lack of promotion and excitement tend to be the key reasons, particularly if employees are simply unaware of the contest or do not know how to get involved. It is also a good idea to make sure that the incentives being offered through the contest are valued by participants. If an employer is offering something the employee does not want, the cost of that incentive is wasted.

To track the success of a contest, employers can look at a number of metrics. For example, Kroger measures participation levels, steps taken in walking contests and pounds lost in weight-loss contests.

Miller suggests that employers measure ongoing engagement, also, such as the number of employees submitting weekly tracking results.

Joanne Sammeris a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.


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