In our podcast, we talked about how wellness programs are becoming a must-have, as more and more employees expect their employer to provide some wellness benefits. Yet, there’s this notion that you need to be a big corporation with a deep pocket to have a comprehensive program. This is simply not true.

Small companies can deliver a quality wellness program on a tight budget, and this is because of a simple principle: good employee wellness programs are ones filled with genuine care and the desire to help, not dollar bills.

We’ve previously discussed the technical aspect of running a step challenge, as well as ways to communicate with employees to increase retention and engagement in the first two articles of this Wellness on a Budget series. In this article, we’ll talk about the third biggest component of a wellness program: coming up with thoughtful and affordable rewards.

Rewards are important for several reasons. First, having something to work towards can be a significant incentive for some employees to join. Critics argue that sustainable behavior changes come from intrinsic motivation and providing external rewards might not be enough for participants to keep their habits after finishing the program. We don’t disagree, as there are merits to this argument. However, it is undeniable that some people just need a little push. They might be entirely happy with their lifestyle and would not even give wellness habits a try. In these cases, giving employees the incentive to stay healthy and enticing people to participate in wellness programs for a prize acts as a bridge from the couch to a 5K, from McDonald’s to a salad.

Another important question that program organizers need to ask themselves is: Who am I trying to help? Most of the time, the target participants are not the ones who are already active and eat healthily. These employees, regardless of company’s effort, will go out of their way to continue their wellness habits. It is the people who are less health-conscious that need external motivation. They would benefit from employee wellness programs and challenges the most.

That said, companies with small budgets still have to be mindful about the cost since the price tags of healthy goodies can be hefty. Activity trackers can go above a hundred dollar apiece, and other wellness subscriptions, when purchasing in bulk, can cost a small fortune. On the other end of the spectrum, getting $20 gift cards might not act as big enough of an incentive for people to join. The best solution lays somewhere in the middle: a reward that is meaningful, attractive, yet affordable for the organizer.

Here are three of our favorite affordable rewards:

#1 Public Recognition

Employee Recognition cartoonPublic recognition is a powerful way to motivate employees, especially in a competitive environment. While it typically goes with other perks such as gift cards or goodies, the recognition on its own can be a good start.

The fastest (and easiest) way to recognize outstanding participants are:

  • Create an email shout-out or send a message in the company’s intranet recognizing their hard work.
  • Make a poster of the program featuring the winners’ photos.
  • If your organization has bulletin board (physically or virtually), pin a flattering photo of the winner with some decorations around it.

Be sure to make it clear why the person is being recognized; did she walk the distance between Boston to New York? Did he climb Mt. Everest? Whatever it is, highlight the achievements of the winners.

There’s a potential drawback: as attractive as public recognition is, some people might not like to be put in the spotlight. You can avoid making them feel uncomfortable by clearly communicating your intention to publicly recognize the winners beforehand and encouraging people to come to you if they have any concerns.

#2 Extra Vacation Day

Who doesn’t want an extra day off to unwind and relax? If you can afford it, offer additional paid vacation days as the prize to the winner.

It has also been shown that employees who take a break from work come back with improved productivity and reduce burnout. Therefore, not only will you motivate employees to create healthy physical habits (in the case of a walking challenge), you will also enable the winner(s) to relax mentally.

However, not all organization can afford to provide extra paid vacation days, especially small businesses. In these cases, allowing employees to work from home (or remotely) can be a good alternative, especially if the work can be done anywhere.

This flexibility is actually becoming more crucial to workers. According to a Gallup report on the State of the American Workplace, “51% of employees said that they would change jobs for one that offered them flextime, and 37% would do the same for a job that offered them the ability to work whether they want at least part of the time.” Ideally, you should consider offering flextime or telecommuting to most employees if the situation allows. Regardless, using this perk as a reward for the winner in the short run can drive significant engagement.

5 real and unique wellness rewards CTA to download free ebook

#3 Freebies From Community Partners

Q: How do TV shows offer big-ticket prizes to winners without having to pay for the expensive rewards themselves?
A: They partner up with brands that want to advertise their products or services to provide the best rewards while keeping the cost low.

The good news is that you can emulate this formula in your organization and get great rewards for your program participants too. Many local businesses would love the free press and will be willing to give a discounted/free prize to your participants. Reach out to places like gyms, yoga studios, movie theaters, and even local healthy restaurants and ask if they’d like to contribute to your “gift basket.”

To pull this off, you will need to show these businesses that you’ll go out of your way to promote their products (either by flyers, shout-outs, press releases, social media blasts, etc.). If you get the buy-in, you can put together a fabulous gift basket for participants while helping your local businesses grow. That’s a win-win for everybody.

There’s a rule-of-thumb to follow when you go this route: only promote things that you’d feel comfortable using yourself (i.e., don’t give out fat-burner pills if you are skeptical about the chemicals that go into it). Every partnership that you make reflects who you are as a person and who your company is as an organization. If you choose a business with bad practices or is known for disrupting the community, you may harm your organization’s brand and your own reputation. Free is great, but exercise due diligence to make sure that you’re only working with positive brands.

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