The pandemic has helped shine a light on the critical importance of employee well-being. A growing number of business leaders now recognize that promoting employee well-being is essential to their success and sustainability. As I wrote about last month, companies that prioritize employee well-being will develop reputations as “great places to work,” enabling them to attract and retain top talent.
But taking employee well-being seriously does not mean it cannot be fun. In fact, applying game-playing elements—including contests and rewards— to a serious work environment can effectively increase motivation and employee engagement and improve employee well-being outcomes. A two-year study of a Canadian company found that gamified wellness challenges resulted in “significant clinical improvements” in measures like blood pressure, perceived stress, insomnia, and fatigue.
The benefits of introducing fun and play into your wellness program go beyond measurable well-being outcomes. An essential element of such wellness challenges is that they are social in nature. Employees track how their individual progress compares to others and how their work team is faring in relation to other teams. The fun and playful competition this generates can build the camaraderie and connection we seek to restore after months of isolation.
A critical time for employees
The sudden rise of the Covid-19 Delta variant has muted the optimism many were feeling earlier in the year. We are starting to realize that our expectations for a quick “return to normal” may have been premature.
Business leaders need to be mindful of the ongoing stress, and anxiety employees may be experiencing. According to a June survey, one in three employees returning to the workplace felt their return-to-office negatively affected their mental health. Playfulness, connection, and physical activity are powerful antidotes to stress and anxiety—making now the perfect time to introduce wellness challenges to your company’s employee well-being program.
Keys to gamifying wellness challenges
Wellness challenges can be implemented through apps and web-based health engagement platforms that seamlessly integrate with wearable health apps and devices.
Incentives, rewards, or recognition can be established and tailored according to what drives your employees most. You can also have a combination of incentives, rewards, and recognition so that there is something for everyone. This can include tangible incentives like a wellness stipend, gift card, or publicly recognizing challenge winners with their fellow employees. They all create a proven feedback loop that reinforces positive behavior and solidifies new healthy habits.
Tracking your progress is another essential feedback loop. Daily, weekly, and monthly step goals, for example, can help maintain motivation. Whenever possible, come up with fun and creative measures—you might describe an employee who has walked 5.5 miles as having walked the height of Mount Everest.
The social aspect is the most critical. Research shows that having a “fitness buddy” can greatly improve our chances of keeping up with healthy routines. A workplace wellness challenge essentially turns your co-workers into fitness buddies. Although fitness buddies are sometimes called “accountability partners,” it is much more than accountability. It is also about connection: about knowing that you are not in it alone and about knowing that your individual efforts are part of something larger. Cultivating friendships at work also improve productivity, job satisfaction, and retention rates.
A menu of wellness challenges to choose from
Along with customization, variety is key to keeping your wellness program fun and engaging. Below is just a sampling of some of the challenges I have implemented at different organizations. They can be individual or team challenges or a combination. New monthly or quarterly challenges are recommended to keep interest and engagement high
- Physical activity – “1,000 Strong Challenge” to become stronger at the exercise of your choice (1,000 reps or 1,000 minutes over a quarter)
- Mental health – commit to a minimum of seven hours of sleep or daily breathwork sessions
- Preventive health – healthy snack challenge, or “wake-up water challenge”
- Work/life balance – commit to a no work email policy after 7:00 pm
Challenges, rewards, and incentives can be tailored to the needs of individual employees, teams, and organizations. Above all, have fun and experiment
Playfulness and your individual wellness routine
In addition to creating wellness challenges in the workplace, you can bring that same spirit of fun and creativity into your routines. For example, in his book Tiny Habits, Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg describes how he started doing two push-ups every time he went to the bathroom. It may not sound like much, but it all adds up, and the push-up habit led to other habits that Fogg credits with helping him lose weight and add new energy and vitality
Moreover, remember that, apart from fitness goals, joy and playfulness should be goals in and of themselves and an essential part of your wellness routine. In response to the “blah” many of us have felt at times during the pandemic, National Public Radio (NPR) developed a Joy Generator to “boost happiness by taking time for small moments of delight.”
“Blah” is not a scientific term, but earlier this year, Adam Grant wrote that it is a simple way of capturing the languish he says is “the emotional long-haul” of the pandemic. Languishing is the opposite of well-being, and the cure consists of precisely what the NPR Joy Generator, Fogg’s tiny habits, and workplace wellness challenges offer: regular physical activity, mental health practices, small wins to create sustainable habits, fun, and connection with others.
Indeed, employee well-being is serious business and should be top of mind for today’s business leaders. But fun and games may be one of our best tools for achieving it.