What Are Employee Wellness Challenges?

Employee wellness challenges are workplace engagement events held to promote the adoption of healthy behaviors among employees through friendly competition. Challenges usually last several weeks and can happen just once or on a regular basis.

Challenge activities can be anything from walking challenges to financial well-being challenges. Employees participate individually or on teams, earning points for completing challenge activities. Those who earn a top spot on the leaderboard or achieve a particular goal (e.g., take 5,000 steps a day) earn rewards.

Most challenges focus on a single or a few dimensions of wellness (e.g., physical activity, mental health, etc.). This means that a single corporate wellness challenge cannot be fully holistic. Organizations aiming to embrace all dimensions of health may run multiple challenges a year or consider a more comprehensive wellness program.

Still, workplace wellness challenges are a great way to infuse health and well-being into company culture. They're fun, engaging, and beneficial to employers and employees alike.

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How Can A Workplace Wellness Challenge Benefit Employees?

Promote Health

As the name implies, wellness challenges promote healthy behavior and improve employee wellbeing. Here are some examples of challenges designed to promote specific dimensions of wellness.

The challenge activities are beneficial by design. The structure of each challenge lends itself to the development of healthy habits which can improve health outcomes for your team.

 

Improve Employee Engagement

This is especially true for a remote workforce, but all kinds of teams get an engagement boost from meaningful, well-run wellness challenges.

 

Retain Employees

The Global Employee Benefits Watch report from Thomsons Online Benefits found that employees who felt their employer-provided benefits positively affected their lives were 40% more likely to say they were loyal to their company.

How To Engage Employees In Wellness Challenges

Keep It Simple

Confusion can quickly put a wellness challenge on hold. If employees don't understand one element of the program, they will choose not to participate. It's critical to keep every aspect of the program simple, including how the challenge is scored, how winners are determined, and which rewards await. Simplicity helps you keep communication simple, which is a must.

Pro tip: Show your challenge structure to some employees before you launch. If they don't get it right away, it's time to simplify.

 

Ease of Use

While the challenges themselves should be reasonably difficult, it should be easy to engage with the challenge logistics. Having to log in every day to record your activity on a site that is not mobile-friendly will result in frustration and low adherence rates. Do everything in your power to make participation as easy as possible for employees.

Pro tip: Try using a challenge platform that allows for third-party app and device integration. Allowing employees to sync their Fitbits and other popular wellness technologies to the program makes things easy and will actually save you money.

 

Real-Time Data

Imagine participating in a wellness challenge that allows participants to enter their points any time they want. You decide to enter your points as you go, and as you approach the end of the competition, you see that you're in the lead. On the last day, your coworker retroactively enters all of their points from the entire challenge and jumps straight into first place. Pretty frustrating, no?

This is why it's so important for workplace wellness challenges to keep leaderboards as fresh as possible, ideally updated no less than once a day. Competition without accurate information will turn participants off.

Pro tip: Third-party integrations ensure that data is collected accurately and updated in a timely fashion.

 

Limit Team Sizes

Some wellness challenges incorporate teams as part of the program. This is a great idea, but it's important to limit team sizes to 3-8 people (4-5 works best). Smaller teams are more reliable for motivating each other and are less likely to suffer from "social loafing," where some members feel they don't need to participate because others will pick up the slack.

Pro tip: Having a tight leaderboard promotes competition and engagement. Create team captains and randomly assign teams based on performance in previous challenges. Captains will help organize and motivate the team, and random assignments will help employees interact with colleagues they may not know.

 

Leadership Involvement

Like any workplace initiative, support from senior leadership shows that they consider the wellness challenge a priority and not just another check-the-box item. Studies show that when leaders publicly recognized their employees' healthy actions, the companies had greater employee health improvements and medical cost reductions. The same results were found in organizations where leaders were seen as role models for work-life balance.

Going beyond merely signing off on a wellness initiative, however, senior leader communication is even more crucial and has been shown to be the missing ingredient in boosting employee awareness and engagement. According to a report by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP), of those employers citing positive effects of wellness programming on health care costs, 54% have senior leadership speak directly with employees on wellness information.

"Whether a workplace wellness program is taking a more holistic approach or focusing on cost savings, this report distinctly revealed that it is not only leadership support but, more specifically, leadership's communication of the program to staff that is critical for program success." - Julie Stich, Associate Vice President at IFEBP.

Pro tip: Check out this article on how to get executive buy-in for wellness initiatives!

 

Dedicated Wellness Champions

Wellness champions are employees who serve as ambassadors of your wellness program. Ideally, champions are passionate about wellness, and they possess a charisma that organically inspires others to participate. Their responsibilities may include introducing the challenge to the team, helping colleagues set up their accounts on the platform, and serving as captains in team-based competitions. Wellness champions can be from human resources (or whichever department runs the wellness program). However it's much more effective when champions come from multiple departments.

In addition to generating buy-in from the team, wellness champions also represent valuable sources of information and collaboration for you as the administrator. Hold regular meetings to gauge participant engagement, hear feedback, and provide updates for dissemination.

Pro tip: Your overall employee wellness program stands to benefit greatly from wellness champions even beyond the context of a challenge. Learn more here!

 

Rewards & Incentives

Wellness is its own reward, right? Well, sure... but a sweet gift certainly doesn't hurt. If you're running a challenge through a vendor, they'll probably plan and execute the rewards structure for you (and you should pay close attention to this when selecting a vendor).

If you're running your own challenge, don't just default to a gift card and call it a day. Think carefully about what your employees will actually use and enjoy. Consider launching a brief survey to gauge interest in a range of options. Research existing challenges for ideas. Here are some wellness challenge ideas to get you started:

  • Charity donations in the winner's name
  • Edible Arrangements or similar healthy snacks
  • Fitness goods (e.g., Fitbit, home weight set, jump rope)
  • Gift card for food delivery
  • Company-branded swag
  • A good ol' cash prize

 

Recognize Participants, Not Just Winners

Although it may be intuitive to recognize and reward only the top performers, it’s a bit demoralizing when the triathlete in sales wins every challenge by default. Promote participation and build a culture of health by sharing success stories of those employees who don’t consistently score the most points. For example, find participants who showed great progress from one week to the next or who are engaging meaningfully with the challenge after having mostly skipped the last one. Try to recognize these stories publicly and find a way to make these employees eligible for rewards.

Pro tip: Set aside prizes for the top finishers of challenges and those who put in a good effort. If you have a tight budget, allocate some of it to raffles for all participants, so everyone has an opportunity to win a prize. At Wellable, we like to raffle off prizes based on the number of points earned (each point represents a raffle ticket) so even if an employee is not a top finisher, he or she still has an incentive to end the challenge strong.

 

Friendly Competition

This will depend on your organization’s culture, but you should find ways to promote competition among participants. Perhaps your employees are comfortable enough with each other for some trash talk via Slack ("Was Steve even alive yesterday?? I see zero points!"), or perhaps positive encouragement would be a better fit ("Luisa just hit 200 points in one day, everyone! Round of emoji-applause!"). Participants will engage more if they feel motivated to compete and know their colleagues are motivated too.

 

Clear & Constant Communication

Wellness challenges are not a "set it and forget it" type of program. After introducing and explaining the challenge with clear, exciting messaging, you need to follow up. Provide periodic leaderboard updates. Promote prizes with photos. Share videos of team members completing a particularly tough challenge component. Not only does this serve the previous goals of competition and recognition, it also performs the sometimes-overlooked but very important function of simply reminding employees that the challenge is still going on.

 

Gamification

At its most basic level, wellness gamification takes the form of rewards, such as points, levels, trophies, and badges. For example, most wellness challenges award participants points for doing the encouraged behaviors (e.g., 100 points for every mile walked, 50 points for every cup of water logged, etc.). At the end of the challenge, users with the highest points are awarded prizes. This method works well for competitive individuals but might miss the mark for ones that lack interest in extrinsic motivations.

Going beyond the basics, a well-gamified wellness challenge needs to be fun. Don't treat a challenge like any other program; project an atmosphere of enthusiasm. Share points updates in meetings with drum-rolls and fanfare for current leaders. Display leaderboards and progress bars in high-traffic areas. Find opportunities to engage employees in challenge activities together at the office (e.g., organize a group to take a 30-minute walk after lunch for extra steps). Life's too short not to have a little fun, and wellness challenges wither on the vine without it.

 

Evaluate and Repeat

Every organization is unique, and as such, its wellness challenges should reflect its culture and employee base. Also, despite the best practices listed above, every challenge will be a teaching moment for the wellness coordinators. Make sure to evaluate the program before, during, and after and make iterative changes to constantly improve your wellness challenges.

Pro tip: Don't be afraid to test things out. The worst-case scenario is that you will learn what does and doesn't work.

How Long Should A Wellness Challenge Be?

A limited one-time wellness challenge should last four to ten weeks. It's important to provide enough time for participants to find their footing, especially if there are multiple ways to earn points and they need to find their ideal strategy. It also usually takes a week or two of seeing movement on the leaderboard for a true sense of competition to coalesce. However, if it's too long, people are bound to lose interest, especially if they feel they're too far behind to catch up.

Pro tip: Looking to engage your employees year-round? Consider a continuous wellness program. Geared toward helping employees reach long-term wellness goals, continuous wellness programs reward greater motivation, diligence, and mental endurance than single challenges. Learn more here!

What Should Your Wellness Challenges Include?

Walking Challenge

These address the physical dimension of well-being. Most smartphones are enough to participate in step-tracking challenges, but integration with wearable technology like Fitbit, Apple Health, and Garmin is a big help.

 

Bike To Work

Obviously, this isn't feasible everywhere, but certain workplaces may challenge employees to bike to work instead of driving or taking public transit. These challenges should be accompanied by plenty of safety information.

 

Healthy Eating Challenge

Provide recipes and guidelines for employees to prepare healthy food at home. Promote local restaurants that serve healthy, organic food. Share easily digestible (no pun intended) nutritional best practices.

 

Sleep Challenge

These work best when paired with devices that track sleep, but it's not a must as long as everyone is comfortable using the honor system. Provide tips for getting a good night's sleep.

 

Budgeting Challenge

Financial wellness is a crucial dimension of one's well-being. To avoid getting into sensitive details, set competition criteria around relative savings and goals. For example, "Save X% of your October pay" or "Meet Y% of your savings goal toward your next big purchase."

 

Charity/Give Back Challenge

Whether volunteering, donating, or offering emotional support to others, charitable giving boosts happiness, health, and personal satisfaction. Award challenge points based on wellness activities; participants can convert points to donations. Learn more here!

 

Environmental Challenge

Environmental challenges provide participants with an opportunity to focus on their personal well-being and the well-being of the planet by learning how to easily incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday lives through healthy behavior. Learn more here!

 

Healthy Habit Challenge

Individually, many healthy habits are not difficult to adopt. It's much harder to maintain them and to hold several at once. Use a challenge structure to incentivize one healthy habit at a time, accumulating more as the challenge progresses. Learn more here!

 

What To Avoid

Weight Loss Challenge

A relic from days past, a weight loss challenge generally does more harm than good. From a strictly scientific perspective, weight is simply not an informative metric for wellness. Even body mass index (BMI), which controls for height, has limited value outside a doctor's office (and its value there has come under scrutiny as well). Moreover, weight is a fraught issue for many people. Many do not wish to lose any weight and would resent the idea that they can only win a challenge if they do so. For others, weight loss is simply unattainable or considerably more difficult due to underlying health conditions. All in all, it's best to leave all discussions of weight out of the workplace.

Conclusion

Whether you're looking to boost employee morale, engage remote employees, or improve employee well-being, you should incorporate wellness challenges into your corporate wellness program. Find a challenge structure that meets the needs of your team, that provides rewards they'll care about, and that they can understand and engage with easily. Generate buy-in early and often with the help of executive leadership and your dedicated wellness champions. Provide a real-time leaderboard. Encourage friendly competition. Your employees will make great strides toward developing a healthy lifestyle, and they'll have a lot of fun doing it.