Disclaimer: taking into account Telastyn's comment, I'd like to point out that I do not wish to force anything upon my staff. I don't want to impose anything against their will. I would like them to see any health-related thing as another treat or perk of the job, like the Think Geek toys, Seinheiser headphones and other things I keep bringing in. It's just that for once I would like to reward efforts towards healthy living instead of performance. I'd like to be fair about it too.

I care a lot about my staff. These days I've been concerned about their health.

Most of the guys here are somewhat overweight, but there are some really obese. One of them is actually starting to have back problems due to excess weight. There is also a guy who not much older than me, but already has a couple bypasses and a stent in his heart.

I think everybody here could probably benefit from having a healthier lifestyle. So I have been thinking about promoting healthy habits.

I had this idea together with my HR/accounting guy that since one of our clients is a gym, we could probably negotiate a group discount for the staff. I would also like to give everyone who went to a gym a 5-10% monthly bonus over their salaries, whether this be our client's gym or any other.

Now while HR/accountant loved the first part of the idea (group discount), he was adamantly against the second part. He says that rewarding those who go to a gym with extra money is somewhat the same as punishing those who don't go. I think part of him not liking it is due to it involving spending and him being an accountant (sorry, couldn't let that pass).

I don't want my people to feel forced to workout. But I do want to incentivate them into a not-dying-from-a-heart-attack-at-40 attitude.

Is the bonus idea sound, or really stupid? Which other ways can I employ to convince my staff that being healthy is actually good for them?

P.S.: I'll confess that my worrying for their well being goes a bit beyong employer-emplyee relations. It's not just about getting more productive workers for me; some of the younger ones look up to me as the older brother they didn't have, and they'll sometimes seek advice and listen to me on some matters, including this topic. Still, I want to be as neutral and fair as possible where the company is involved.

  • 11
    I think everybody here could benefit from having a healthier lifestyle. - It's not your place to dictate how your employees live their lives outside of the office. Personally, I would be strongly turned off by a company thinking otherwise.
    – Telastyn
    Oct 30 '13 at 18:37
  • 9
    I don't see much difference between "optional, but you'll make less money if you ignore us" and "mandatory".
    – Telastyn
    Oct 30 '13 at 19:27
  • 4
    The way incentive programs tend to work out ends up being "If you're fat or disabled, you pay $X more than someone who is thin and healthy". Given that we don't have any means of weight loss that work for everyone in the long term, and that people with mobility issues will find exercise difficult, it ends up breeding resentment. Oct 30 '13 at 19:45
  • 3
    I'd love it if my company did this, I would absolutely take them up on it. It does seem weird though, as if it would be a legal grey area.
    – wim
    Oct 31 '13 at 0:04
  • 3
    @AmyBlankenship This is off topic for this site. Also, I sincerely doubt you personally have examined the eating habits of every fat person in existence, so you might want to lay off the generalizations... Oct 31 '13 at 21:53

Executive Summary

Don't fall victim to the Extrinsic Incentives Bias. Money is great at some things, and not so great at others. I think this is one of those areas where money clouds the situation more than helps.

Extrinsic Incentives Bias

As stated in the wikipedia article, MBA students were asked to guess what motivates Citibank employees. They guessed the following:

  1. Amount of pay
  2. Having job security
  3. Quality of fringe benefits
  4. Amount of praise from your supervisor
  5. Doing something that makes you feel good about yourself
  6. Developing skills and abilities
  7. Accomplishing something worthwhile
  8. Learning new things

The actual results were very different:

  1. Developing skills and abilities
  2. Accomplishing something worthwhile
  3. Learning new things
  4. Quality of fringe benefits
  5. Having job security
  6. Doing something that makes you feel good about yourself
  7. Amount of pay
  8. Amount of praise from your supervisor

I assume you're a good boss, and that you pay your employees well and they are happy with their level to pay. As Daniel Pink says in Drive, pay is a demotivating factor -- it is demotivating to not get enough, but once you have enough, more isn't especially motivating for most people. So giving additional pay to your employees for being healthy probably isn't going to have the desired effect.

Safety First!

The safest workplaces do not reward people for pointing out dangerous situations, they change the mindset of the organization to truly believe that safety is the most important priority. That isn't done through money, it's done through actually caring about employee safety. Keeping employees safe becomes something people believe is the right thing to do, and the motivation becomes intrinsic. People are much more likely to continue doing something if they believe in it rather than if they're being paid for it -- if pay is your motivation and it stops, you won't keep the desired behavior.

In the specific case of a healthy office, you are also perpetuating an unfortunate assumption:

"It's okay to be unhealthy if I'm willing to pay $X for the privilege!"

Health cannot be bought. No amount of money can undo a heart attack or a stroke. No amount of money will undo the harm caused by a life of hard living (or sedentary living). You can't stay thin by bribing your waistline, and that understanding is fundamental to an organization that believes in health first.

Create a Health First Organization

So if you want to create an organization that believes in health like a factory believes in safety, what can you do? Here are some (non-exhaustive) ideas on how you could go about it:

Make it Easy to be Healthy

Everyone wants to be healthy (just like every smoker wants to quit), but we don't because it's hard. Make it easier. Give people the ability to:

  1. Enjoy healthy choices
  2. More easily than unhealthy choices
  3. At no extra cost

This means things like having fresh fruit and vegetables in the office to snack on, or at least getting healthier snacks. It means getting a great chef who makes fresh food in the office kitchen instead of just ordering a pizza. The staff still gets a great meal, they still don't have to put in any effort, and yet they will also be healthier for it.

It means allowing people to set up appointments with the company nutritionist who will meet them any time of the week in the office for free. They don't have to go and see them. It means having fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to employees bi-weekly so that they don't have to go out and buy them. It could mean giving healthy pre-cooked meals prepared fresh for people working late so that they don't need to stop for fast food on the way.

Set up a gym in the office, or offer free bikes to anyone who wants to commute in to the office, etc.

Pick whatever things match your budget and you think your employees will appreciate most. No need to make a fuss out of it, no need to mention it's for health, just make it easy to do.

Healthy Competition

If a group gets in to something, they are more likely to continue than if they're doing it alone. Try to find ways to give people an incentive to take the stairs over the elevator, or to go for that jog during lunch even though it's raining. Some things to consider:

  1. Do not compare people by absolute performance, but relative performance (pursue personal bests, not world records)
  2. Make sure people who don't compete aren't ostracized or otherwise feel that they should feel forced to
  3. Participation should be its own reward (or any reward should be feel-good and not significant)

One way of doing this would be buying everyone in your company and their families something like a Fit Bit. It records things like how well you sleep, how far you walk, how many stairs you climb, how many minutes you are active in a day, etc. When you use it, you get badges for accomplishing certain feats, which makes it a pretty good motivating tool for doing the right thing (kind of like what SE does for Q&A).

You could do things like giving a single Fit Bit to each group or team, and setting a monthly goal for how many stairs they should climb, or how far they should walk -- anyone in the team can use it on any day or at any time. Teams would then have an incentive to talk about who will be exercising, or running, or who climbs a lot of stairs, and start a discussion about exercise which will at the minimum raise awareness.

Alternatively, you could take the stats for everyone in your company (without making them public to their coworkers), and post averages by gender, by age, by team, by whatever so that people can set goals to beat themselves, and show how those group averages change over time.

You could even have people be allowed to just use them to make their own groups and see where they take it themselves.

You could hand out trophies or some other feel-good measure each month or year, or have the trophies pass around whenever a group loses them.

Lead by Example

Get healthy yourself (if you aren't already).

When you've been working long hours, let everyone know you're going to take a day off because you deserve it, and let the office know that taking a break is the healthy thing to do (and encouraged even by management). If someone looks stressed, encourage them to take a (free) afternoon off to spend with their family, or out on a golf course or something.

If you get them something like a Fit Bit, make your results visible on the company intranet or something of the sort so people can see how you're doing. Even if not, consider non-intrusive ways of sharing healthy things you're up to, like great restaurants you have been to (that serve healthy food), or great recipes you've found.

  • 9
    AS a manager, the biggest way you can contribute to emplyee health is to make sure they don't work long hours. You actually can get more done in 40 hours than 60 because you aren't exhausted. One reason why people don't exercise or eat right is because they work too many hours and are too tired to even think about exercising or the effort it takes to make a helathy meal. alternet.org/story/154518/…
    – HLGEM
    Nov 1 '13 at 14:56
  • Do not compare people by absolute performance. For the guy with the bypasses, a stroll around the block may be as much as he can manage, for the gym rat boss, a marathon on the weekend may be just another day. Each one has his own limits and it may take a couple of years even for a healthy but unfit person to work up to a race participant level.
    – frIT
    Sep 8 '16 at 9:20

Are you planning to have them do this on the clock, or are you expecting them to do it on their own time?

Required expenditures of personal time (or money for that matter) that weren't disclosed up front, whether it's working out or taking support calls or whatever, is rightly seen as an imposition by employees. You are, essentially, mandating that they donate their time for your goals, which (they will argue) aren't even related to their jobs in this case. Incentivizing with a "bonus" probably won't help; as your accountant points out, this will be seen as a penalty on those who don't engage in your "optional" actvitiy.

You could possibly tie a financial difference to health-care costs, if this actually matters to your insurance carrier, but that might be tricky. To sell that you would also need to differentiate based on other factors, like smoking. This is likely to be contentious and I would not advise it.

My employer, which self-funds health costs, takes the following approach: there is a $500 "discount" (their word, really a penalty as already noted) if you have an annual physical that includes certain tests. This isn't working out at the gym by a long shot, and it's not even mandating that people listen to their doctors' advice, but it at least gets them to have the exam. If you're going to go down this path, you might start there rather than at the gym.

Ok, that's a lot of nay-saying for your idea; what are some positive steps you can take to encourage health without getting mired in this particular incentive scheme? Here are a few:

  • Stock healthy, free snacks. Make it easy for people to have an apple instead of a bag of chips.

  • If you're in a suitable location for this, keep some loaner bicycles on hand so that people can ride out to lunch or to do errands or the like.

  • Have a shower on site so that people who want to bike to work instead of driving can clean up when they get there. If you subsidize mass transit, have something for the bicyclists too to encourage their behavior.

  • Provide some exercise equipment (and shower, as noted above), and some reasonable amount of time to use it. Allow it to be part of the work day, not extra time.

  • Subsidize gym memberships. Period -- no requirements, just give those who want to go to the gym on their own time a little incentive to do so.

  • Organize some fun, athletic, after-hours activities -- company volleyball team or the like.

  • 1
    This has nothing to do with insurance, and I wouldn't have them do anything on the clock. I really appreciate your point of view on this. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that yes, that bonus idea was a really stupid thing. I'm going with subsidizing the gym. It doesn't feel like forcing anyone to do anything. I will think about the place for shower - we can build two of these ourselves, we have the space - but as for a place to exercise, the gym is really only two blocks away (and it has showers too, but I want to have our own for those who come by bike). Thanks :)
    – user10483
    Oct 30 '13 at 19:17
  • 3
    Glad you found it helpful. One advantage to having (a little) equipment on-site is that people might be willing to spend 10-15 minutes on a treadmill, but not an hour for a trip to the gym (though being nearby helps with that). Oct 30 '13 at 19:19

First, get 'key man' insurance on all the 'important' employees.

What is in your break room? Most of the time one finds a snack dispenser and cans of soda, along with the usual caffeine fixes. Is there a bowl of fresh fruit?

Even fit people get gym subscriptions they never use. What might be more interesting is to set up a 'stand up' workstation where people can design or code stuff - this might be interesting in a conference room where multiple people can collaborate on the fly. This is a good use for a '4K' monitor with touch screen capabilities.

Put in a hand crank USB charger for cell phones and tablets.

If you have a park near your workplace, hold 'all hands' meetings in the park where everyone has to walk outside to the pavilion or picnic table or sandbox.

In short, no mandates, no lectures, no suggestions - just put stuff in that makes it possible, and make it less convenient for them not to use it.

  • 1
    "In short, no mandates, no lectures, no suggestions - just put stuff in that makes it possible, and make it less convenient for them not to use it." I feel like this is what my workplace did. Suddenly, all this healthy food started showing up, and people just naturally started taking advantage of it. The libertarians love this approach because it doesn't tread on their freedoms. :D Although, my workplace didn't make things harder. We can still go out for lunch if we want. Making it harder might be seen as similar to a mandate, so I'd be careful about that one.
    – jmort253
    Oct 31 '13 at 5:20

Is the bonus idea sound, or really stupid?

I don't think it's stupid - in fact it's becoming rather commonplace in many of the companies in my part of the world.

That said, I'm not sure I've ever seen this sort of thing tied to a percent of salary, but rather a fixed number of dollars. If someone were offering a 10% bonus, that could be a rather hefty chunk of change.

Where I currently work, they have a "Wellness Program", championed by HR. You attain "bonus points" for certain activities deemed "healthy" by the company. For example, if you have an annual physical, you get 50 points. If you have your biometric screening performed (BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc), you get 125 points. And so on, and so on.

Once you get 300 points, you are given $250. And your spouse can earn $250 the same way.

From an HR point of view, this improves the health of the company, is generally viewed as a "nice thing to do for employees", supposedly leads to a reduction in absences, and perhaps a future reduction in insurance premiums.

I don't know the participation rate, although I'm sure it's less than 50%. And I don't know if the company has actually measured the impact of this program on productivity or absences.

I don't think this would work as well if a single department attempted to implement it, if it weren't fully supported from the top of the company, or if the monetary rewards were tied to a percent of salary rather than a fixed amount. But those are just my feelings, I've haven't fully analyzed the impacts, and I'm not an HR professional.

I have friends in other companies in my area who have implemented similar policies, although the details seem to differ slightly pretty much everywhere. Some companies don't try to directly measure any of this, but just offer discounts toward "healthy living" businesses, like gyms, yoga, etc.

If you are the CEO of your company, I commend you for thinking along these lines. If you are at a lower-level, I suspect it might be more impactful if you try to convince HR to champion this for the entire company, rather than try to get it implemented for just your span of control.

Seems like a good idea overall.

  • I'm the owner and have 100% of the shares. My dream is having my right hand man and the accountant as partners someday. Anyway, I'm thankful for the input. It's really useful... Though the idea of the bonus is losing force, at least this helps me keeping a clear conscience, and me and accountant can think of something else along those lines.
    – user10483
    Oct 30 '13 at 19:36
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    The last company where my husband worked had points, but they went toward extra days off rather than money. Oct 31 '13 at 0:58

If you really mean it, I would suggest that letting (and encouraging) them do it while on the clock is the best solution.

The recommendations I've seen is between 75 and 150 minutes a week of aerobic activity. If you pay for 30 minutes a day, they are much more likely to do it (depending upon where the gym is). The reason most people don't exercise is that it's basically work which is rewarded by healthier body. If it's actual work, rewarded with cold hard cash, more people would do it.

  • 1
    This is the simple way to achieve the same goal with less friction. For an employer, time and money are pretty interchangeable (that exchange is pretty much what a job is). Giving some people extra money will be frowned upon by others (including the tax man), giving them time off will not have the same negative connotation.
    – MSalters
    Oct 31 '13 at 10:40

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