Boosting Wellness Programs in the New Year

Most companies implementing a fitness initiative in the new year started planning back in November, but it's not too late to harness new year’s resolutions energy.

Companies that want to kick off the new year improving employees’ health could be motivated by several considerations, says Mike Tinney, founder and chief executive of the game-based wellness company Fitness Interactive Experience. “The thesis we work from is that a healthier person is more productive than an unhealthier one,” he tells PLANSPONSOR.

A lot of studies suggest a person who is healthy will cost less to insure over time, although Tinney says that can be a little difficult to prove: “Insurance rates are affected by more than just a person’s health,” he points out, “so it’s not the easiest or the cleanest thing to measure.” But he points to two other issues: a worker’s absenteeism—how often they are out because of illness—and presenteeism, a new term from the management sciences that is garnering more attention.

Tinney explains that presenteeism refers to a person who is physically present on the job, but displays a concerning lack of attention, possibly due to sickness or depression, who does not put forth the same amount of effort as someone performing to the best of their abilities. “They’re not fully engaged in their responsibilities,” he says. “They are surfing the Internet, chatting, drifting and daydreaming. It is often a result of a person’s health.”

Exercising on a regular basis can have a positive effect on more than just the person’s own fitness. “People who are physically active tend to be more focused and productive at work,” Tinney says.

Employees can find inspiration to get healthy in a range of ways, such as an upcoming event for which they want to look good. Perhaps someone has to run up a flight of stairs, Tinney says, and they realize it is harder than it used to be. Many make new year’s resolutions from feelings of guilt or determination that lead them to decide to make a change, he observes, and companies are beginning to use these feelings to jump start their workplace physical wellness programs.

Most companies implementing a fitness initiative in the new year started planning back in November, Tinney says, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. January is still a great time to harness that new year’s resolutions energy. “Planning is always the best solution,” he says, but those that are just getting started just need to keep it simple.

NEXT: Start simple with a few easy steps

“Have a clear and simple call to action that can be done now,” Tinney advises. His suggestions are a corporate walk/run sponsored by the company, bringing in a local fitness expert to run a class two or three times a week or getting everyone Fitbits to track progress.

But fancy equipment and even special trainers are nonessential. “I almost always default to walking, because companies have such a diverse population and it’s something everyone can do more of,” Tinney says. His firm does not recommend specific diet or weight loss challenges, since they can promote unhealthy behavior.

“A diet challenge or a bet or a challenge around losing weight almost never lasts,” Tinney says firmly, “and the behavior changes don’t last.” When people are overly focused on the number on the scale, they often go to unhealthy extremes, such as binge dieting, or extreme calorie restriction, to have the lowest number—and the weight comes back when the challenge is over.

Tinney suggests involving senior leadership from the beginning: most people will take their cues from the chief executive. “If the CEO is involved, people will follow,” he says. When a company is involved in the initiative, it must emphasize in their culture that an individual’s health is important, Tinney says.

Companies tend to get better results when they reward or recognize people for participating. “It doesn’t have to be cash or a financial incentive,” he explains. “Some companies give out affirmations or whatever aligns with the company culture.” Be clear, concise and make goals actionable and measurable. 

The effects of an effective program that catches the excitement of employees are cumulative over time. “If you have a successful program or challenge, usually you can build on that and have more successful events,” Tinney says. “The more you do them, the better you get at doing them, and the more people you can reach.” He notes that Fitness Interactive Experience tries to get people to include their spouses and families, which can benefit the entire household.

Tinney’s last piece of advice is to have people work in teams. “A study from the University of Michigan shows that a person puts forth three times the physical effort on a race if they think they have a team mate depending on them,” he says. “It’s good for sticking with a program. We tend to quit on ourselves before we quit on others.”