Workforce.com

There's No 'I' in 'Team'

Companies are finding that team wellness challenges work better to create behavior change than individual incentives. But team challenges have their limits, too.

October 30, 2012

In an effort to inspire employees to take charge of their health, Kaiser Permanente in May launched an online nutrition program to encourage employees to eat more fruits and vegetables every day.

Called Mix it Up, the program has a database of more than 120 possible fruits and vegetables to choose from. Employees signed up with the goal of eating at least five servings of produce per day. They have logged in to the site through their computer or a smartphone application, clicked on images of the produce they ate, then dragged them over to a virtual blender. Mix it Up then added up the number of fruits and vegetables eaten per day and tracked progress over time.

Mix It Up is just one example of team wellness challenges that are catching on at companies nationwide. Team-wellness challenges at the workplace are relatively new, says Steven Noeldner, principal and senior consultant at Mercer. It's part of the "gamification" of workplace wellness programs, he says.

Indeed, wellness gaming companies such as Keas of San Francisco and Kairos Labs of Seattle are harnessing mobile technology and online social networking to get people to change their behavior.

A total of 13,350 employees participated in the six-week Mix It Up challenge. Registrants could sign up individually or as a team with colleagues. Forty-four percent chose to work as teams, while the other 56 percent took the challenge as individuals. Seven hundred teams participated in Mix It Up over the summer.

While Kaiser Permanente did not specifically encourage team participation, it found that teams ate more fruits and vegetables than employees doing the Mix it Up program on their own, says Nancy Vaughan, vice president of national accounts at Kaiser Permanente.

More than twice as many people on teams completed the challenge as those who competed individually. And though more people registered as individuals, team participation success was about double that of individuals. Overall, 32 percent of all participants increased their fruit servings, while 29 percent of participants increased their vegetable servings, the Oakland, California-based integrated health system says.

While there is little research on team versus individual outcomes in wellness programs in the workplace, anecdotal evidence suggests that team challenges can be an important motivator, Noeldner says.

"More people tend to participate on team challenges; people do like competition," he says. "It's not inconsistent from what we know from behavioral economics."

However, Noeldner cautions that employers should view team challenges as just one aspect of their wellness offerings.

"These activities are typically short in duration," he says. "I think there's some limits to it."

While most people would benefit from adding more fruits and vegetables to their diet or walking several times per week, other aspects of their health status also need to be addressed, Noeldner says. For instance, a diabetic would benefit from a tailored, ongoing program that could include a personal coach, he adds.

Challenges can lose their novelty as well. "Any organization that uses these types of campaigns has to think about changing them regularly," Noeldner says. "There's a clear drop-off in the number of participants in repeat campaigns."

And some team challenges can have unintended consequences. Team weight-loss challenges have spurred the use of diuretics, laxatives and crash dieting at some workplaces, he says.

"Often times, short-term contests don't support long-term healthy behavior changes," he says.

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.