From pandemic-driven mental health awareness to the threat of economic instability, the importance of well-being is more critical than ever. Corporate wellness programs have become an expectation for job-seekers and employees who seek to optimize their holistic well-being. Unfortunately, there is a widely held belief that only big companies with deep pockets can build a successful program. This is simply not true.
Small companies can deliver a quality wellness program even with limited resources, as the success of employee wellness programs lies in genuine care and commitment, not extravagant budgets. The goal of this blog post is to provide guidance to launch an employee step challenge through a "do-it-yourself" approach. Once leadership witnesses the positive outcomes of a program, funding for wellness initiatives will be on the way!
Formerly considered a “perk”, employee wellness programs, and their popular component, wellness challenges, are slowly becoming an integral part of the modern work environment. More companies are investing in wellness initiatives to keep their employees healthy and physically active. In the constant battle against turnover and disengagement, companies should view employee health and loyalty as valuable resources, which can be earned and improved through wellness initiatives. A recent survey found that employees who felt their employer-provided benefits positively affected their lives were more than 40% more likely to say they were loyal to their company.
Despite this, the misconception persists that only large companies with abundant funds can run impactful wellness programs. However, programs that are driven by genuine care and the desire to help employees will always be effective, regardless of the size of the budget. While a generous budget can provide the resources to run programs with minimal administrative burden, managing a small program for your office is possible with some guidance and organization!
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What Is A Step Challenge?
A step challenge is a program, usually organized at work, where employees compete by taking steps throughout the day. In these programs, participants can compete with themselves by trying to hit personal or pre-established step goals, compete against other individuals, and/or create teams to compete against other teams at their company.
Regardless of the format, most step challenges should have a leaderboard (preferably real-time or near-time) for participants to check their progress and ranking. To motivate participants, many organizers tie in a reward/incentive to the program. Some employers award the incentive based on participation in the program and others do so by ranking on the leaderboard.
This guide goes through the three core components of a step challenge program that an organizer will need to pay special attention to. These components can also be found in other challenges (such as nutrition or meditation challenges), so feel free to adapt this guide to your need!
- Step Tracking And Reporting
- Crafting And Organizing Engaging Communications
- Picking Motivating Rewards
Each section will be full of tips, free templates, and good-to-knows. Feel free to reach out if you need additional information!
Step Tracking And Reporting
This series is designed to help managers with a limited budget to kick start an office walking challenge. There are multiple approaches to organizing one, and you can get creative with your method. Any method, regardless of the technology powering it, needs to be able to facilitate three different functions: (i) participant tracking, (ii) reporting and data aggregation, and (iii) leaderboard creation.
Step Challenge Participant Tracking
These days, most people associate “step tracking” with a wearable device. Popular wearable devices include FitBits and smartwatches, like the Apple Watch. To quantify the ubiquity of step tracking technology, consider these survey results: 20% of Americans own a wearable device (40% for millennials) and another 45% are thinking about purchasing one within the next year (51% for millennials). It is very likely that a large portion of employees already own one or are considering getting one in the near future.
While wearables are effective in tracking user movement, they are not the only tool available for facilitating walking challenges. Many smartphones have accelerometers that are used by free mobile apps to automatically track user steps. People who don’t want to invest in a tracker can simply use one of these free apps to track their activity.
Apps For Step Tracking
Many smartphones already have free apps pre-installed on the phone to track steps, such as Apple Health for iPhone users and S Health for Samsung users. Here are some other apps participants can use to track their steps:
- Leap Step Counter: This app has a built-in steps sensor and can monitor walking distance, time, and calories burned. You can set a goal prior to beginning a step challenge and the app will create a report with visual progress.
- MyFitnessPal: Popular for its food tracking capabilities, this app can also act as a step counter. You can input step number goals to stay on track during a challenge.
- MapMyWalk: This app is a great way to view walking as an opportunity for adventure and the discovery of new places. It tracks steps and distance while recording the track of your walking on a map.
- FitBit: This activity tracking app is available to everyone, with or without a FitBit. This app allows users to become “friends” with other participants, which will assign them to a leaderboard (making this a great app choice for reporting purposes—stay tuned!).
Since your participants are unable to manually count every step they take each day, they won’t have many options outside of the two mentioned above. If you foresee problems arising within your community in using these technologies, you may want to offer low-cost pedometers as a substitute. These devices are available on Amazon for very affordable prices.
As an alternative to counting steps, you can steer the program towards rewarding participation in group walking sessions. Try organizing three walking groups per day (in the morning before work, during lunch, and in the afternoon after work), each for 15 to 30 minutes. Employees can join in one or more sessions when it is convenient for them. Towards the end of each session, participants will receive a small stamp on the sign-up sheet to document their participation. The winners are those who clock the most walking sessions during the challenge.
Reporting, Data Aggregation, And Leaderboard Creation
After taking the necessary steps (no pun intended) to track their activity, participants need to report the steps to the organizer. There are two options for participant reporting: (i) the Dinosaur Method and (ii) the Technology Method.
1. Dinosaur Method
This method can be very inexpensive (if you don’t count the indirect costs) since it does not involve working with or having to pay for a third-party. Additionally, it requires little technical know-how, since you will be working mostly with a white board and a marker or with spreadsheets, hence, the “Dinosaur” part.
Hidden Costs Of Wellness Spreadsheets
First, you’d need to ask participants to report their step counts, miles, and/or duration of their walks. Then, you need to aggregate all data into a leaderboard. Step counts are simply the numbers indicated on a participant's activity tracker (wearable device, free mobile app, etc.). The distance can be mapped using Google Maps or free websites like MapMyWalk, and a timer can be used to keep track of the duration. Afterwards, employees can submit this data into a survey tool, such as Google Form (free), Survey Monkey (free or paid), or Typeform (free or paid). Depending on the volume of participation, restricted basic plans from Survey Monkey or Typeform may be a sufficient option. Otherwise, Google Form is the best option to avoid acquiring additional costs.
The interval for reporting is also an important factor. As it is ideal to collect step counts for each day, participants would be required to to submit data on a daily basis. However, employees could be discouraged from participating by the trouble of recording data. Frequent reporting also means that the organizer has to find a way to aggregate the data accurately and build the dashboard appropriately. The most convenient frequency for both participants and organizers is when the data is managed weekly. A sample schedule would be to remind your participants to enter their data every Friday morning, then run a report and send out the leaderboard by the end of the day, letting participants know their standing for the week.
Word Of Caution
If you’re going to offer prizes and, thus, need to determine winners (it is a challenge after all), going with this method will not be very efficient. The accuracy of the result relies heavily on employees’ honesty and no human error. It may be wise to implement some auditing measures to ensure data integrity.
b. Data Aggregation And Leaderboard Creation
The activity data reported by each user needs to be aggregated into one spreadsheet or single document. To do this, Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets may be your best friend. If you assign each user with an unique ID in Excel at the beginning of the challenge, aggregating their step counts into one spreadsheet is simply a matter of mastering the VLOOKUP function. If you are not comfortable with Excel, fear not. Simply download the free Wellable template, which includes all the necessary functions embedded into a single Excel file. Simply follow the instructions on the first sheet and you are well on your way to organizing your challenge!
From the aggregated data, you can sort the participants by step count to form a leaderboard. If you want to get fancy, apply some conditional formatting to add some flare to the presentation. The Excel file provided in the the template automatically pulls the aggregated data into a team leaderboard. You can share this leaderboard with participants by taking a screenshot and sharing it through email or the company intranet (more on communication in the second section).
2. Utilizing Free Technology
Because the social support and accountability may be a source of motivation for some people, more and more applications are allowing users to share their statistics with friends and family, even with strangers! Some platforms take one step further to gamify the experience by building in some “friendly competition” by organizing results in a ranking format. You can leverage these social features to create your own program leaderboard without having to hire a third-party vendor or manage spreadsheets.
First, you’d need to have all participants synchronize their health data to a single platform that can track steps from a device or a phone like Fitbit. The free Fitbit app can serve as an activity tracker so users without a Fitbit device can participate. By doing this, users will all be tracking their steps automatically and can join a challenge or become “friends” with other participants on the app, which will assign them to a leaderboard. You will not be able to create a team leaderboard with this option.
b. Data Aggregation And Leaderboard Creation
With this method, participants will benefit from automated tracking and employers benefit from real-time, hassle-free leaderboards. However, there are multiple downsides to this approach:
- First, your challenge will be committed to a single app, which will exclude non-compatible devices (though employees can still opt in to participate with their smart phones).
- You may be limited to just steps with no ability to incorporate distance or time.
- Most apps limit the number of users that you can have in any particular challenge, capping the amount of participants you can have in your program.
- Participants will have to find all other peers and add them as friends on the platform. Participants might also have their family and friends connected, which means that their stats are displayed on the leaderboard, making it harder to determine one’s real place in the competition.
Pro Tip: the organizer can create a new account, add only the challenge participants as friends, and take screenshots of the leaderboard each day to share with participants in an email thread.
3. Connect To A Platform Provider (Bring Your Own Technology)
Companies with a budget to work with can look into third-party vendors. With this option, employees will need to go through a one-time setup to connect their apps or devices with the platform, and the provider will take care of the rest. All relevant data, such as step, distance, and duration, will automatically sync with the platform.
b. Data Aggregation And Leaderboard Creation
Managers will then have access to a dashboard to see how participants are doing, as well as analytics to measure the success of the program. With higher quality vendors, employers will have greater flexibility to customize programs.
Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), in the walking challenge context, allows people to participate using their tracking technology (app or device) of choice. As a company, you don’t have to put out a significant investment to bulk-purchase devices, since employees will be bringing their own trackers or smartphones.
There are many devices and applications on the market, each with their own user interface, design, and functionality. For example, a Fitbit Flex might be a good option for those who are just starting out and don’t need many sport-specific features, while more serious athletes might prefer to go with Garmin watches that focus on performance.
Similarly, in a diverse workplace, no two people have the same need or goal, so it’s not imperative that every participant uses the same exact device. If people are forced to use a device that doesn’t resonate with them, they are much more likely to throw their hands in the air and say, “I give up!”
By encouraging employees to explore and bring in the technology that they’re most comfortable with, you are setting the program up for success. Participants don’t have to beat the learning curve of being introduced to a new form of technology. The focus is then shifted away from getting accustomed to a foreign device and directed towards developing better habits. Once everybody has a tracking technology in place, there are multiple ways you can aggregate the data to make a leaderboard.
While it might sound out-of-reach, working with vendors is not as expensive as you might think! Most programs have a fixed administrative fee and a variable portion based on the number of users. When this up-front cost is compared to the indirect fees of the Dinosaur method, the difference can be minimal. While program coordinators will still need to put in the hours to manage a program, the amount of time needed will be significantly less. Also, most vendors optimize the user experience to save participants as much time as possible.
It is important that to choose a platform that can pull in statistics from multiple devices and apps. Since BYOT is the focus, the platform needs to be able to accommodate all technology choices that your employees may make.
Most platforms will automatically generate a leaderboard for participants to check their ranking in real-time. This eliminates the need for the organizer to distribute the leaderboard manually.
4. Realizing That DIY Is Not Your Thing?
Some vendors have dedicated account managers to help with designing new challenges, creating content for distribution, and troubleshooting any technical problems that users might have. This takes a lot off of the manager’s plate, allowing them to focus on wellness programs that a third-party cannot assist with building.
Organizing Engaging Communications
Communication is crucial for any successful wellness challenge, yet it is often overlooked. If you want employees to carve out time from their already busy schedules to join the program, you need to be able to communicate the benefits of participation in an engaging and enticing way - make it so attractive they cannot say no.
Essential? Yes. But it is no easy feat. Planning and executing effective communications is time-consuming. A thorough guide on this topic would call for an entire eBook. To get you started, this article includes the most important aspects of effective communication for employee wellness programs, as well as some brilliant (FREE) tools you can utilize to improve communications.
Like many aspects of life, wellness program communications benefit from being planned out well before they are sent. The easiest way to achieve this is by creating an editorial calendar for communications.
Yes, this is the editorial calendar that many marketers are using. In fact, you should put on a marketing hat and approach recruitment for your company’s wellness program the same way you’d “sell” to a customer. That’s how convincing your messages have to be if you want to grab employees’ attention.
After all, the average person receives around 124 emails in their inbox on any given day, and every single one of them is directly competing with your email for attention. Planning out communications in advance will improve comprehension and relevance, making employees more receptive to the subsequent messages you send out.
What should I include in my calendar?
You should include every communication related to the challenge, including:
- Social media posts
- Intranet messages, etc.
Each message, regardless of its distribution channel, should be aggregated in one document (calendar) with its relevant information. The following column headers are recommended.
- Week (to/from launch date)
- Publish Date
- Due Date
- Type of Communication
Planning out these details beforehand will facilitate seeing the big picture and provide you with an actionable plan to follow. Additionally, having ample time between the due date and the publish date will allow enough time for crafting creative and engaging messages, avoiding the panic of last-minute writing from robbing you of your creative juice! Below is an example of how you can create your own communication calendar.
The most useful tool for creating a communications calendar is the good ol’ spreadsheet (plus, it’s free!). Here’s a template to get you started, but don’t be shy about changing it up and customizing it for your needs! If you have a co-organizer (and you should - administering a challenge can be a lot of work!), use Google Sheets to collaborate in real-time.
With the amount of emails your employees receive, none of them need another generic “Hey there” greeting. Luckily, tools like MailChimp makes personalization surprisingly easy.
Once you’ve imported participants’ information (name, email, etc.), you’ll have the option to send out emails that address people by their first name. Studies have shown that emails with the recipient’s first name in the subject lines have higher open rates. Again, this is where the research on basic marketing can help tremendously with wellness communication.
You can personalize it further by segmenting email recipients. For example, you can send an additional reminder to people who did not open your email or sign up for the challenge. This way, there’s no redundancy, and people don’t get bombarded with irrelevant emails.
MailChimp’s free version supports up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. This capacity should be more than enough to support a small-scale challenge. Anything bigger will prove to be excessively complicated, at which point you should rely on professional service to ensure the best experience for your employees.
3. Health Tips
When coordinating a challenge, you should send out educational materials to increase engagement and retention while also maximizing employees’ adoption of healthy behaviors. For example, if you’re organizing a walking challenge, collect and distribute information on the benefits of walking, the health risks of prolonged inactivity and sitting, etc. Below is an example infographic, created by the International Sports & Culture Association’s Campaign for the Get Europe Moving campaign.
Whatever information you decide to publish, use trusted and reliable sources. Luckily, you don’t need access to expensive publications to get factual information. There are free and trusted sources out there you can count on. A few of our favorites are:
- American Heart Association
- Intermountain Healthcare
- Fitbase Blog and Research Library (This one is special because of the site’s connection with Fitbit, the wearable manufacturer. Their bias would suggest taking their articles with a grain of salt, but since this section of their resources is based heavily on research, you should feel comfortable recommending it to employees.)
- Health News - CNN.com
- Another helpful source that people seldom consider is their alma mater’s library resources. Most schools extend their library access to alumni, which means that you can access publications from your school’s accounts long after you graduate. If you don’t mind going through the more formal research articles or if you have a particular fact you want to check, being able to quickly search through the library resource can be helpful.
As a rule of thumb, below is a quick guide to help judge the legitimacy of sources (adapted from John Hopkins Medicine’s website).
- Accuracy: Does the site use reliable research? Do they provide links to the original research/source of information? Check many sources for the same information - are the results the same?
- Authority: Websites that end in .org, .gov or .edu are usually the most reliable websites for health facts. If the website you got the information on is not a non-profit/governmental website, do they link their claims to authoritative websites?
- Bias: Who pays for the website/research? This is not to say that information provided on a company’s blog cannot be factual; you just need to do you due diligence to make sure that you get reliable data or information. For example, the Wellable Blog always link claims to the original research. This brings us back to accuracy - make sure that the sites you use have links to the original research or source of information.
- Currency: When were the facts last updated? Medical research evolves constantly, so information should not be older than three years.
4. Get Creative
If you’ve been on social media at all, you have likely noticed the domination of graphics across all channels. Media like infographics, short videos, and pictures deliver information in a quick and engaging way.
“But I don’t have a graphic designer to deal with that!”
Well, you don’t need one. With the tools available online, creating graphics is quicker and more painless than it’s ever been. For example, an infographic can be created in half an hour (or less) on platforms like Canva or Venngage. Even better, they have an extensive library of templates that you can use - no experience in design needed!
Both Canva and Venngage have free versions that you can trial. Canva’s model is pay-as-you-go, meaning that you only pay for the specific premium add-on you want to put in your design (check out their tutorial page for design inspirations!). Venngage is free to create and share on social media. It requires a paid (but affordable) subscription that will give you access to more advanced templates and allow you to download visuals.
If you want to run repeating challenges, communicating the success of previous ones can be a great selling point to recruit more participants! Hopefully, your challenge will generate a lot of buzz the first time around, and participants will eagerly recruit their colleagues to join future programs. To make the evangelists’ work easier, below are some creative things you can do.
- Create a photo book of past challenges in the form of a PowerPoint presentation and share it with the rest of the company.
- Record short videos of people participating/giving testimonials. This kind of footage is also a great way to showcase workplace culture to the world on the company website and social media. Make sure to get permission to share these videos from consenting employees.
Choosing Motivating Rewards
Rewards are important for several reasons. First, having something to work towards can be a significant incentive for employees to join. Critics argue that sustainable behavior changes come from intrinsic motivation, and providing external rewards might not be enough for participants to maintain their habits after finishing the program. This is a reasonable position, as there are merits to the argument. However, some people just need a little push. They could 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 them to participate in a wellness program 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 workplace involvement, will continue their wellness habits with or without an employee wellness program. Those who are less health-conscious are typically those who need the external motivation. These employees will benefit from wellness programs and challenges the most.
That said, companies with smaller budgets have to be mindful about the cost, as healthy goodies are often attached to hefty price tags. Activity trackers can be priced at over 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 incentive for people to join. The best solution falls somewhere in the middle: a reward that is meaningful, attractive, yet affordable for the organizer. Below are three of our favorite affordable rewards.
1. Public Recognition
Public recognition is a powerful way to motivate employees, especially in certain work environments. While it typically goes with other perks such as gift cards or goodies, the recognition on its own can be a good start. Below are the fastest (and easiest) ways to recognize outstanding participants.
- 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 photos of the winners.
- If your organization has bulletin board (physical or virtual), 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 is, however, 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 been shown that employees who take a break from work come back with improved productivity and reduced 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.
Understandably so, not all organizations can afford to provide extra paid vacation days, especially small businesses. In this case, 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 wherever 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.
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 copy this formula and get great rewards for program participants too. Many local businesses would love the free exposure and would be willing to give a discounted/free prizes to winners. Reach out to gyms, yoga studios, movie theaters, and even local healthy restaurants and ask if they would be willing to contribute to your “gift basket.”
To pull this off, you will need to show these businesses that you’re prepared to 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, which is a win-win for all parties involved.
There’s a rule-of-thumb to follow when you go this route: only promote products or services that you would feel comfortable using yourself (e.g., don’t give out fat-burner pills if you are skeptical about the chemicals that go into them). Every partnership that you make reflects on the company. If you choose a business with bad practices or one that is known for disrupting the community, you risk harm to your organization’s brand and reputation. Free support is enticing, but don’t forget to exercise due diligence to ensure that you’re only associated with positive brands.
Navigating the dynamic world of technology is difficult, and it may seem impossible keep up with the rapid changing trends. However, here’s a reassuring thought: while technologies can be a great tool and make life much easier, independently, they are not the solution. The real answer, as it turns out, is to create a strong culture that values health and well-being. Luckily, in most cases, this can be easily achieved if it becomes an organizational priority.
Employee wellness is becoming increasingly vital, but it does not have to be a financial burden. If you effectively utilize your time and resources, you can organize and administer the challenges yourself. However, if you want some extra help, don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends at Wellable on social media or through the website!