A little competition is a good thing. Properly channeled, it focuses the mind and brings out enhanced performance. But improperly channeled, or undertaken to excess, too much competition can become toxic to any organization.

If your employee wellness program sets employees or teams against one another, you may get great performance out of your most competitive 10 percent: The “type A” personalities who thrive on competition – and who may very well be physically active to begin with.

But you could turn off the remaining 90 percent of the company that doesn’t thrive on competition – or who get enough of it just from navigating the workplace every day.

Not everyone had positive experiences playing youth sports. Research shows that 70 percent of children drop out of competitive youth sports programs by age 13. When a wellness program environment focuses too much on competitions between employees, workers may experience anxiety, a fear of being put on the spot or humiliated, or simply seek to avoid the situation and withdraw from participation.

When such feelings are widespread, the wellness program sponsor is not likely to realize their corporate goals: A healthier workplace culture, lower health care utilization and medical premiums, improved absenteeism. And the employee turned off of the corporate wellness program is not likely to engage in any behavioral changes himself.

Here are some principles to keep toxic competition from sabotaging your workplace wellness initiative

02. Recognize and encourage small improvements.

People aren’t machines. Human nature demands that our efforts and sacrifices pay off. Small rewards encourage greater successes.

01. Don’t tolerate jerks.

No wellness program can succeed with a leader only being focused on themselves. You want your employee wellness program leader to have personality, be motivated, be focused on changing the culture. However, it can’t survive with someone being a jerk. Period.

03. Create meaningful incentives for all fitness and competitiveness levels.

It’s fine to create a great incentive for your top athletes to run marathons or Tough Mudder races. When they’re happy, they may help recruit other young and active, fit employees to the company, simply because their social networks are likely to be comprised of fit people as well. But most of your improvements in health care utilization and absenteeism are going to come from the fat part of the bell curve, and from improvements in the health and wellness of the least active or obese employees, smokers, hypertensives, diabetics and pre-diabetics who are motivated and encouraged to make positive changes in their lives.

4. Don’t ‘preach to the choir.

Your healthiest employees may not need a wellness program to keep good habits. Design your wellness program to appeal to the people who need it, and for whom small changes can lead to great improvements. For example, according to data from the American Heart Association, simply migrating from a high-risk’ category to a lower one is associated with a 53 dollar reduction in medical care per employee, for as long as the employee remains in the lower risk category. Furthermore, workers who reduce one health risk factor also decrease presenteeism by as much as 9% and absenteeism by 2%. One study of workers in a financial services company estimated that a reduction in any one of many individual factor resulted in a corresponding increase in productivity worth $950 to the employer.

5. Find ways to encourage teamwork.

An employee who doesn’t care for competition herself can still enjoy the success of her teammates, and when the small team is well led, be effectively included on the team – even where natural ability is limited. It’s important to identify effective small team leaders and communicate to them that inclusivity is important – and the inclusion of the team members with the least inclination to wellness activity may me the most important objective of all, because small changes in this group translate to big savings for the company.

6. Reward and encourage personal improvements.

Obviously, not everybody is going to be the picture of perfect health, vitality and low health care utilization. But everybody can make some progress! Make it clear that employees are not in competition with each other, but that every one of them can achieve meaningful improvements in key health metrics:

  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Weight/body mass index
  • Heart rate
  • • Time to walk/run 1 mile
  • Waist size
  • Tobacco, alcohol or drug usage
  • Number of pushups within 1 minute

By measuring and rewarding improvements, rather than raw numbers, you can make participation welcoming and meaningful for everyone.

07. Look for communal, rather than competitive exercise.

For example, bring in a yoga instructor. Go on group walks – using an inclusive pace designed to be welcoming even to the most out-of-shape employee – because, of course, the goal is for them to not be so out-of-shape next week, next month and next year.

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