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Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Wellness Incentives: The Challenge of Motivation

March 26, 2013 | Leave a Comment

There has been a lot of debate lately over using intrinsic versus extrinsic incentives to motivate employees to engage in an employer sponsored wellness programs. We have the research to show that people are indeed motivated by incentives. However, what motivates one person may not motivate another.
In corporate wellness, the ones who are intrinsically motivated are usually the ones already engaged in their own personal health. These people eat right and exercise because they feel better and know it’s something they should do. Those who are extrinsically motivated need that extra push of something tangible (cash, gift cards, etc.) to get them on the wellness bandwagon. If you surveyed your employees and asked them if they wanted to be healthy or unhealthy, I’m sure everyone would say they want to be healthy. I doubt there will be many who want to be obese or who want to be battling a chronic disease. Behavior change is difficult and sometimes it takes dangling a carrot in front of someone to get them to start making better choices. Someone wanting to be healthy and actually taking the steps needed to be healthy is completely different. Take a look around and its evident there is an obesity epidemic and it’s only getting worse.
Much of the debate over the use of extrinsic incentives is financially it is difficult to maintain as employees will expect more (cash, gift cards, etc.) for the same behavior. Research indicates the average amount spent on monetary incentives is increasing annually. Monetary incentives have increased from $260 per employee in 2009 to $475 in 2012. At the same time, if we look at the use of incentives a little differently, it can help put some things into perspective. What would happen if you told your employees, starting tomorrow no one will be paid to come to into work? Tomorrow I doubt many people will show up for work. It’s not because they don’t like their job, it’s just that most of us need extrinsic motivation at some point or another.
Intrinsic incentives are terrible for getting people started in adopting healthy behaviors because change is difficult and requires patience and hard work. Most of us are still looking for that magic pill, potion or lotion. This is where the extrinsic motivators come into play; extrinsic incentives are beneficial to help in getting employees to make healthy changes at the moment. From there, we hope intrinsic incentives will take over. Those who have adopted healthy lifestyles will fit into their ‘skinny jeans’, may lower their blood pressure and cholesterol, or can now run around in the backyard with the kids. When employees begin to see these changes, they shift from a place of extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation and this is where we see the long-term behavior change.
Instead of debating over which type of incentive we should use, we need to look at the bigger picture- Incentives work!

Posted in Benefits, Blog, Human Resources, Wellness

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