All Articles Marketing Brands & Campaigns The game of corporate wellness: Failing, winning and gloating

The game of corporate wellness: Failing, winning and gloating

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

This guest post is by Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, an online wellness company focused on building happy, healthy, high-performance workforces. Limeade provides a refreshing alternative to traditional, antagonistic wellness approaches, and connects all wellness programs in an integrated, cohesive user experience. Limeade clients include “FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For,” health care providers and large, high-performance employers.

Incorporating gaming techniques into company wellness programs exponentially ups engagement, a key ingredient to wellness program success. We’ve seen companies achieve 90% engagement with the application of a few gaming principles and a bit of “relevant irreverence.”

In the last few years, games — especially those based in Web and mobile software — are increasingly seen as ways to produce serious workplace benefits. Steven Berlin Johnson, author of “Everything Bad is Good for You,” notes, for example, that immersion in video games can enhance cognitive and spatial skills. Game designer Jane McGonigal, author of “Reality is Broken,” suggests that much of what people do in their daily lives could be enhanced by turning it into a game. Byron Reeves, a gaming and psychology expert at Stanford University, summed it up for Scientific American: “The reward centers [in the brain] that are lit up by well-designed games will light up when we engage with any well-designed interactive system.”

Hence the rise in the trend of “gamification” — the overlay of gaming concepts like points, badges and levels – into ever more areas of our work lives. Work is in many ways a game. We keep track with financials and promotions, we follow complicated (often unwritten) rules, and we aim to achieve rewards while avoiding (often random-feeling) penalties.

Incorporating the elements of games into work lives is trendy — but it’s a trend worth paying attention to. Any system or solution deeply rooted in behavioral science has probably already applied many game principles. Small, achievable rewards. Pleasant (and even unpleasant) surprises. Elements of competition and play.

Companies that “get it” have been applying what they love about games to work, health, life and other serious matters. The work game we are playing has consequences for us all — but it is more profitable for all if we bring the joy and learning inherent in games into (ahem) play.

In our business (company-sponsored wellness programs), games have the power to enable players to achieve lasting well-being, productivity and health effects — as long as employees trust the referees and find some fellow players they like. Here are some tricks we’ve learned:

Show, don’t tell. Allow for autonomy and voluntary participation. According to Jane McGonigal, four core elements define a game.

  • A goal
  • Voluntary participation
  • Rules
  • A system of feedback

The first two are in conflict with many traditional company-sponsored wellness programs, which tend to err on the side of a pedantic, top-down approach. This isn’t surprising. Companies have their own objectives and are accustomed to telling employees what to do. Financial incentives will absolutely drive compliance behaviors and can also deliver measurable health returns — but they will not by themselves kick off an organic, bottom-up productivity joyride.

The most successful wellness programs incorporate games designed to serve the autonomy of the player. Give people a bunch of paths to their “winning levels” and make those paths align with the way people actually act — not the way insurance companies want them to act. Allow for autonomy, banter, competition and self-leadership.

Let me own the game. Make it contextual, relevant and social. Games don’t exist in a vacuum; they succeed or fail within the physical, cultural, technological and social context of their players. A game that works for active employees of globally dispersed high-tech companies may be very different from one that works for single one-location hospitals.

To get the feel right, you’ll need a flexible system that enables leaders within the company — those in a good position to know the context of each workplace and each office — to become “associate game designers” and create games that are easily accessed, participated in and tracked by all. These leaders can be janitors or CEOs — whoever sees most clearly the culture.

Relevant also means social — design programs to put each player in contact with people they already know, like (or like to beat) and interact with regularly. We are not playing solitaire here.

Have a big start button. Start with a light touch and then build depth over time. Starting has to be simple. Surprisingly so. Let’s face it, not everyone in the workplace is looking to interact with company initiatives (like wellness programs) every day. At least not yet. If you demand too much early on, you’ll overwhelm participants with too much too fast. As behavior change expert BJ Fogg instructs, “Reward the simplest behavior that matters.”

At the same time, it’s important to build in the thoughtfully designed triggers and feedback loops that progressively draw players in, and ultimately assist in real habit formation. Quick rewards, new achievement levels, “mad money,” prestige and just the pure fun of making an impact on yourself and those around you — these all matter.

Winning is sweet. Losing for a while and then (after much struggle) eventually winning is even sweeter.

And don’t underestimate the pure joy of a little gloating.

Image credit: IvelinRadkov, via iStockphoto