The role of Gamification in health and wellness programs

Gary Cassidy

As benefits managers busy themselves preparing for the current requirement of healthcare reform as well as for the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to kick in in 2015, the topic of health and wellness is certainly top of mind. There’s logic to a focus on workplace wellness. One of the provisions within the ACA provides employers with greater latitude to incent employees to participate in wellness-related programs.

Employers are beginning to recognize that wellness programs are an efficient way to create a healthier workforce, and thereby enable both employers and employees to better control healthcare costs. A study published by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that when health and wellness programs are executed as part of an effective, broad-based healthcare strategy, overall healthcare costs can, over time, return an investment of $3 for every $1 spent. In many instances, employers can impact an employee’s healthcare costs by up to 50% of the total cost of benefits (based on the single employee rate).

However, the challenge many businesses face is how to encourage employees to participate in health and wellness initiatives. Some are turning to Gamification, or gaming strategy, to engage employees. Gamification is defined as the use of game-like features in nongame situations to motivate a change in behavior.

At its core, Gamification of health and wellness programs involves three important components: Rules, rewards, and social interaction or collaboration. Wellness Gamification can be as simple as launching a 10,000 steps walking program that incorporates organizational, individual and team goals and rewards. Or it can be as all-encompassing as a full-on immersive experience focused on individual or team challenges in which “players” are encouraged to take on a game name and personality and adopt an in-game lexicon that is completely different from real life.

Gamification meets many of today’s consumer expectations. Whether they’re at work or off-the-clock, employees consume media. Many programs that incorporate Gamification lean heavily on social networking strategies that participants access from computers, iPhones, iPads or any Android device. This access provides opportunities to see personal or team progress in real time and to interact with other wellness participants. Social interaction creates a healthy competition among participants, which feeds into the psychology of competition. People enjoy competing with their colleagues and peers. But most of all, Gamification is a tool that can help make a change in behavior fun and interactive.

Employees particularly enjoy the opportunity to earn wellness program awards, an aspect of Gamification. In a study of 10,000+ employees by Virgin HealthMiles and WorkForce Magazine, 78% of respondents said incentives are important, and 61% said incentives are a key reason to participate in a program. So, while good health may, in theory, be its own reward, the fact of the matter is that an actual reward resonates with a workforce.

The Virgin HealthMiles study also revealed that job candidates (87%) consider wellness programs when choosing an employer; 70% of respondents said wellness programs positively impact culture at work. For employers, the upside to increasing employee participation in health and wellness programs is obvious. However, the advantages go well beyond job satisfaction and healthcare cost savings. Wellness programs can also help to fire the engine of growth. A recent Aflac Workforces Report found that:

  • 66% of employees who were involved in an at-work wellness program were extremely or very satisfied with their group employee benefits (as opposed to 52% whose employer didn’t offer
    a wellness plan)
  • 67% of employees engaged in worksite wellness believed their employer takes care of them (as opposed to 48% whose employer didn’t offer a wellness plan)
  • 67% of employees engaged in worksite wellness are extremely or very likely to recommend their workplace to others (as opposed to 48% without an employer-sponsored wellness program).

When you consider the importance of attracting and energizing talent, it seems clear that a dynamic health and wellness program is already a critical factor in business success. Gamification is one tool that can help an employer gain traction in increasing wellness program participation and even enhancing other employee communication efforts. Benefits managers and human resources professionals should be contemplating whether this approach is the right fit for their workforce.


  • The tension between young insurance consumers and the Affordable Care Act
  • Building a healthy, productive and loyal workforce
  • The rise of consumer driven health plans

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