8 Reasons Employees Don’t Participate in Wellness Programs (and 3 Steps to Help)

Last week, I was talking to an HR person in charge of her company’s wellness program. She told me she tried a walking challenge but no one participated. Another HR person said her biggest challenge was sustained engagement in wellness programs.

When we talk about wellness program participation, what’s reasonable? Do you want everyone in the company to participate? Sorry, that’s not going to happen. It’s ok (and normal) for some people to never participate and it’s important to understand what you can do differently to change it.

Here are 8 possible reasons your employees aren’t participating in your wellness program:

  • Skepticism. No matter the type of company, you’ll always run into employees who are skeptical of your wellness offering and what you’ll do with their health information. Clearly articulate your privacy policy at the front end of any offering. You won’t convert every employee but over time, you may be able to earn their trust.
  • Not ready. Some people are simply not in a place where they want to change their health. Yes, you know they need to but unless they see the need, you can count them out.
  • It’s not relevant. If you are pushing a weight loss program, that’s only going to appeal to a certain subset of the population. If you are promoting a walking challenge, then count me out because that seems too basic to me but may appeal to beginner exercisers. Tailoring your programs to subsets of the population will typically yield smaller numbers but better results.
  • Program fatigue. If you’re constantly pushing out programs, employees may want a break from participating or tracking or the one extra thing you are asking them to do.
  • Poor communication. Instead of giving them a laundry list of what they have to do to participate, tell them the benefits they’ll receive from joining. Communicate frequently using different channels.
  • Not compelling enough. When I left my job as the wellness manager to being an employee who was on the receiving end of wellness messaging, I tuned most of it out. It took a lot for me to disrupt my daily work routine and go to an event. The ones that got me away from my desk were the creative ones – where they brought shelter animals out for us to play with, a scavenger hunt or an interesting speaker.
  • They’re bored. One company I know offered a Fitbit challenge about three years ago. It was new, fun and exciting. Employees loved it. Guess what they offered the next year? A Fitbit challenge. And this year? You guessed it, a Fitbit challenge. Even if you’re using Fitbits every year, find a way to infuse something other an 8-week step challenge to recapture your audience.
  • Mistrust between employees and management. This is a cultural problem that wellness can’t fix. Do your best with the people that will engage.

Instead of guessing at the reasons why employees aren’t participating, try these 3 steps:.

Ask them. Yes, this is a simple and very obvious step but you’d be amazed at how many companies don’t do this. It can be done through a formal survey or through informal conversations. You don’t even need to ask them questions specific to wellness. Really ask them what they struggle with at work.

When you release them from focusing on wellness, they can focus on their overall job and challenges. Their #1 challenge could be a lack of resources, not enough time to get everything done or a recent product that isn’t working as promised for customers. Often we don’t ask these type of questions because we don’t feel we can do anything about them. What you can do is take these factors into account when you develop your wellness offerings.

Act on the information. Don’t waste anyone’s time by asking your employee’s questions and not doing anything with the information. They’ll only disengage more. Even if you can’t solve every problem, you can at least acknowledge what you are doing with the information.

If you want to know the do’s and don’ts of employee wellness surveys, you can download my guide here.

Tailor the feedback. Let’s say that one department you surveyed is under extreme stress from a backlog of work. Putting something like a walking challenge on them is not something they need but perhaps you could send them healthy snacks, make sure they are getting breaks or sending them someone for chair massages. Those wellness offerings will be much better received.

If you are struggling with low participation, try some basic problem solving using the steps above and see what you can find. Asking your employees for candid feedback will give you better results than throwing things out there and seeing what sticks.