Is Wellness Just a Game?

Written by on November 28, 2012 in Wellness - No comments

I was told a long time ago, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Personally, I have nothing at all against the player. As for the game, I think hate is a strong word. More accurately, I have mixed emotions.

As wellness programs across the country continue to struggle (a kind word) with low participation rates, the latest silver bullet for engagement has arrived in the form of gamification. It’s Gangnam style big in the wellness world these days. Let me pause for a moment. If you aren’t familiar with gamification and/or Gangnam style, you probably visited this blog by mistake. And you need to get out a little more.

It’s hard to change behavior. Especially when you’re asking people to trade cigarettes for chewing gum or cupcakes for carrots. So it makes sense to get creative. After all, other industries are using games to drive desired behaviors with great success. But I worry that with wellness we are suddenly more interested in entertaining than we are engaging. I think that is a mistake.

I’m a proponent of using gaming theory to drive better engagement in wellness. I’m also a proponent of effectively designed incentives, social networking tools and mobile apps. I love innovation, and I get extremely excited when I see a highly creative solution to a complex challenge. The problem is that we don’t fully understand the problem. We have arrived at the conclusion that driving participation in wellness is really hard, so we need something flashy and exciting to save the day. Something fresh. Something new. Something fun and cool. To quote one of my favorite ESPN personalities, Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend!”

I think we’ve had the answers for driving participation in wellness right under our noses for quite some time. The problem is that the solutions aren’t all that cool. They aren’t all that easy either. But they are critical.  And in many of the programs I’ve evaluated over time, they are lacking. So, while I’m just as ready as you are to get my game face on, I’d suggest there are foundational elements we need to address first. Here are my top 5:

1. Get Insight – Your population is unlike any other. Your people are special. To effectively engage them and motivate them, you need to understand them. Insight directs which programs you offer, how you position them, what strategies you should use (gaming for instance) and how you communicate. Every smart campaign, program or movement has at least one thing in common. They resonate. You can’t accomplish that without insight.

2. Set a Plan – In other words, develop a strategy, build effective communication tools and roll programs out smoothly. Create the right mix of incentives, communications, social networking and cultural changes. And establish meaningful metrics to track and improve your success. If you don’t put in the time and effort to properly plan, your results will suffer. Remember luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

3. Create a Voice – Yes, it’s a great idea to leverage existing communication vehicles to get the word out about wellness. If you have an active intranet site, a great track record with a specific medium such as email, or high visibility forums (town hall, company wide meetings, etc.), by all means use them. But don’t forget that you need your program to have a distinct voice to stand out from all the daily distractions. Don’t restrict your promotional efforts to existing communications or to open enrollment season. Do try to differentiate your wellness promotions with a unique approach.

4. Be Social – Today’s world is connected. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool available to you. Finding ways to recruit program ambassadors to help you spread the word is critical. As is making sure you celebrate success stories frequently and provide forums for employee feedback throughout the year. Building a loyal tribe who will speak positively about your program is the best possible outcome. Again, gaming plays a role here. But it’s not the only way to connect with people.

5. Stick with It – Engagement strategies require perseverance. You don’t simply say something once, or even six times, and get all the results you need. Your organization has to buy into wellness as a priority. That means airtime with senior leaders, middle managers, general employee communication vehicles and specific HR initiatives. It means investing in a culture that truly values health. It means refusing to just launch it and leave it. Remember that strategy you spent so much time on? That was driven by so much insight? Well, now you need to see it through.

Remember when a lot of really smart people thought we could just pay people to get well? Incentives have proven to be an important part of the equation, but as it turns out you can’t buy love, or health. I feel the same way about gamification. All work and no play may make you a dull boy or girl. But play (gaming) without first doing the work (insights, planning, commitment, etc.) just won’t get the job done over the long term.

So, I say enjoy gamification, and Gangnam style if that’s your thing. Just don’t forget the basics.

How does your wellness program effectively engage your population? Does gaming play a role?


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