Research suggests that incentivising a workforce, for example rewarding healthy behaviour, is key to promoting wellbeing at work and boosting staff productivity.

What someone has for lunch at work or whether they make it to their Wednesday yoga class might not seem like the concerns of an employer.

But the results of last year’s Britain’s Healthiest Company awards – a joint initiative between VitalityHealth, Mercer and the Telegraph – suggested otherwise. They showed that poor lifestyle choices made by employees cost British companies £58bn a year in lost productivity.

Suddenly what employees have in their sandwich seems far more important. So how do you inspire your workforce to stay in shape for life – and therefore work?

Greg Levine, director of corporate healthcare at VitalityHealth, says the secret is rewarding them when they make healthy choices. “With a little bit of an incentive you have the ability to really increase the amount people are willing to change their habits,” he says.

“We did an experiment that proved this. We set up a doughnut stand and when people came to buy one we offered them the option of swapping to a fruit salad instead, but only 10pc of them switched. The following week we did exactly the same, but we offered a 20pc-off voucher for a local bookstore along with the fruit salad. The amount of people who switched jumped to 40pc.”

It is no big surprise that the offer of a reward can seriously sway people’s behaviour. After all, these days most consumers will choose everything – from which supermarket to shop at to what bank to open an account with – depending on the additional perks the companies are offering.

And in the health and fitness market specifically, there has been a growing trend for apps that offer incentives to the user if they hit their goals – whether that is earning a virtual badge or money.

However, Mr Levine believes that many companies are failing to recognise the power of incentives to keep their workers in good health.

“At the moment, in many ways, British businesses are incentivising bad behaviour, instead of focusing on driving the right behaviour,” he says. “They use traditional healthcare models that treat people like robots, paying to fix them when they’re broken; whereas if you actually look at someone as a human being and drive the right behaviours, you will see a marked change in that person’s health and that drives savings for the company.”

Some of the winners of last year’s Britain’s Healthiest Company awards have already caught on to the true power of incentives. At sportswear brand Sweaty Betty, which won the Healthiest Employees Award for a medium-sized company, all employees are given free fitness gear, but anyone who is taking part in a big sporting event, such as a marathon, is given an additional outfit to spur them on and encourage others to go that extra mile (literally).

And at the biopharmaceutical company Quintiles, which won the Healthiest Workplace Award for a large-sized company, they run quarterly incentivised challenges, such as one recently in which staff measured how hydrated they were through an app.

At Forrester Research, the advisory and research company that won the Healthiest Employees Award for a small-sized company, they offer VitalityHealth insurance to their employees at a small cost. The insurance plan is all about rewarding people for good behaviour – the more active someone is, the more perks they earn, such as free cinema tickets and Starbucks coffees and discounted BA flights.

Anne-Juliette Baudry, Forrester Research’s HR operations manager for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, says: “It is human nature to appreciate some kind of reward when asked to change a behaviour. More than 90pc of our employees are enrolled in the scheme. What Forrester values most is that the package targets health improvement proactively rather than reactively, focusing on healthy habits and lifestyle.”

While this might all sound rather noble, the reality remains that companies want to make a profit. But Mr Levine says that while offering employee rewards might sound costly, it saves companies money in the long run. “What we’ve seen in our Britain’s Healthiest Company research is that someone who is highly engaged in terms of their health will cost a company 0.6 of what someone inactive and unengaged does.

“So if you drive the right behaviours you drive savings, whether that’s in terms of claims on health insurance or in sick pay.”

Therefore, the right thing to do and the smart thing to do may be one and the same. And it seems British workers are keen to get healthy, if only they had a nudge in the right direction. The results of last year’s awards found that 56pc were motivated to lower their body mass index (BMI), 50pc wished to raise their physical activity levels and 25pc wanted to improve their nutrition.

Whether you set up a pedometer league with prizes for the most distance covered or run a loyalty scheme at your on-site café where users get a free salad for every five they pay for, incentives could be the answer to keeping your people – and profits – in good shape.

By Jessica Powell, as published in The Telegraph on 23rd March 2015

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