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Employers use 'gamification' to keep employees engaged in worksite wellness

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Employers are finding that the use of “gamification” in worksite wellness not only can boost participation rates, it also can enhance the effectiveness of those initiatives.

But to keep employees' interest from waning, employers should vary the games as well as the goals they are trying to achieve, experts say.

Gamification is defined as the use of gamelike features in nongame situations to motivate a change in behavior, according to a February report by WorldatWork and Buck Consultants L.L.C. that assessed the use and effectiveness of emerging technology tools to engage employees in improving their health and well-being. Overall, 62% of surveyed employers reported using one or more gamification elements to promote health engagement to employees, and 31% said they likely will adopt one or more new elements in the coming year (see chart).

Frustrated by their inability to control rising employee health care costs, employers are turning to gamification because of the success it has demonstrated in the broader business space, said Barry Hall, Boston-based principal and innovations leader with Buck Consultants.

“At its core, it's about ways to motivate people,” he said. “The majority of employers have some sort of incentives attached to wellness programs. The contrast of using games is that it's a different type of motivation.”

“You can offer incentives, but if you make something interesting, that can be a huge incentive in and of itself,” said Sander Domaszewicz, a senior consultant and leader of Mercer L.L.C.'s U.S. consumerism practice based in Irvine, Calif. “It's taking a page out of the playbook of what's working in other parts of people's lives. People will spend hours on Farmville (a Facebook game) planting fake crops. Get them to use that same compelling desire and interest to improve their health. It could be as simple as giving people pedometers and holding a steps challenge.”

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Kathryn Yates, global practice leader for communication and change management at Towers Watson & Co. in Portland, Maine, said there are five different levels of gamification used by employers in wellness programming:

Level 1: Includes individual challenges.

Level 2: Involves individuals comparing their progress against others, as in “Biggest Loser” weight-loss competitions.

Level 3: Team games that incorporate peer pressure and tribal loyalty.

Level 4: Involves user-generated content, such as competitions devised by employees themselves.

Level 5: Total immersion games, where employees use technology to create virtual worlds.

Because the cost of producing and conducting the games increases with their level of sophistication, Ms. Yates advises employers to start slow, perhaps creating a pilot program involving a group of employees and expanding it later.

“There's a full spectrum of how employers can use games that fit their budget or fit their culture,” she said.

Elizabeth Chrane, senior vice president of marketing at Digital Insurance Inc. in Atlanta, says employers often use gamification as a way to introduce wellness to employees for the first time.

“It's helping people realize that by eating greens, taking another step or drinking more water, it does make a difference in their health. And after they do that, they may take the next step like participating in biometric screenings or health coaching,” Ms. Chrane said.

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For example, participation rates in Digital's online wellness tools, available free to its employer customers, jumps to 85% when some type of challenge is involved versus 5% when there is not, she said.

To maintain those high levels of engagement, benefits experts advise employers to periodically change contests and prizes.

“We have a large employer that created a walking challenge. The first time they did it, they had about 40% of employees participate. But they didn't change it, and the second time they only got 25% participation, the third time less than 10%,” said Mr. Domaszewicz. “They saw a significant drop-off in participation.”

Merry DeMartino, executive vice president of talent development at Event Network Inc. in San Diego, recommends that the contests be limited to a prescribed period.

“There is a method to the madness of how long the game should be. We've found that eight to 12 weeks is long enough to change behavior and not get boring,” said Ms. DeMartino, who was named the 2012 Business Insurance Benefit Manager of the Year® for significantly reducing the company's health benefit costs partly through the use of gamification.

“Most of what we do in health care benefits is fact-based and financially oriented. Gamification is an attempt to make that experience more personal and fun,” said Mike Thompson, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. in New York. “The issue of engagement has become Job 1. Everyone is seeking to achieve the same end game of helping people to become better at managing their personal health and understanding value in their health benefits.”