The junction of gamification and employee wellbeing01.08.19
Chief Innovation Officer
In the age of apps and livestreaming, gamification has never been bigger. We’re now starting to see providers making huge strides in the gamification of wellbeing – but considering a vast majority of wellbeing programmes still fail, how much difference can gamification make?
Wearables in the workplace
One of the most common ways people use gamification improve personal wellbeing is via wearables. These include the popular Fitbit and Apple Watch which give regular reminders to move your body, hydrate or even alert you of an irregular heartbeat. In the near future, the Apple Watch will even be able to advise wearers if the location they’re in is too loud and risks damaging their hearing. Despite the fact one third of people who buy fitness trackers stop using them within six months, these potentially life-changing (even life-saving) features make wearables the kind of wellbeing device people want to wear, even if they aren’t actively tracking their health.
The age of wellbeing apps
Gamification of wellbeing is nowhere as prevalent as in apps: we have a multitude of wellbeing apps at our fingertips, many of which reward you for taking care of yourself. Whether it’s an RPG-style step-tracker which rewards you in the form of ‘levelling up’ when you walk a certain distance, or an app that revels in the nostalgia of life simulators by growing a digital plant with each glass of water you drink and register on the app.
Gamification isn’t automatic engagement
Evidence around the success of wellbeing initiatives is sporadic at best (a thorough review of research shows <50% of ‘strong evidence’ for success in the gamification of wellbeing). Where there is strong evidence, however, is two-fold:
Gamification has been proven to work best for children and young people, which is perhaps reflective of the majority of gamification being targeted at this audience and delivered digitally. This is not to say other demographics will not engage with gamified wellbeing; it suggests the method of delivery and user experience is more significant in success than the wellbeing programme itself.
How effective are these programmes?
It is fast becoming a fact that the majority of employee wellbeing programmes fail. Recent research surveyed the experience of 33,000 US employees assigned to a workplace wellbeing programme – the study found very little evidence that employer-sponsored schemes had any effect on employee health. A similar study by the University of Chicago found the same – however, what the researchers did find is that these programmes had successfully engaged previously disengaged employees.
For gamification to work effectively, employers need to understand that behavioural change is slow. Wellbeing may not seem immediately effective, but that does not mean it isn’t working. Small improvements in health and wellbeing should be celebrated, and engagement with wellbeing – even without improvement – should be encouraged. Whether that’s practicing mindfulness, taking part in financial education, improving a sleeping pattern or finding a type of exercise you enjoy.
Use gamification to support wellbeing, not control it
It’s no surprise that the social aspects of gamification play the largest part of its success. Our previous research into employee behaviour and socialisation shows that employees benefit equally from being recognised themselves and seeing their peers recognised – so it seems understandable that gamification is most successful when used in wellbeing to enhance support networks and provide social proof.
Giving employees the support of a community can make a huge difference when working towards improved organisational wellbeing. Gamification provides a unique angle in its ability to bring peers together in their successes and their struggles – employees have benchmarks of others’ success, support for their personal goals and the community benefits of celebrating everyone.
Despite the positives of social wellbeing, it’s all too easy for employees to feel pressurised by employers into taking part in wellbeing initiatives. Therefore, it’s important above all that employers are not unintentionally shaming those who choose to avoid workplace wellbeing, or don’t feature in leaderboards.
As employers we should also be conscious that not every employee is motivated by competition – any gamification should be aimed at employees improving their own mental, financial and physical wellbeing – not trying to improve (or overtake) that of others. A specific improvement may be significant to one employee, but not compared to another. When employees set their own goals, the chance of success significantly increases; so employers should encourage employees to work towards their own goals, not those of the business or peers.
As with celebrating incremental progress, personal goals and engagement alone, it is crucial that employers acknowledge the risk wellbeing initiatives can pose to certain individuals.
By placing emphasis on wellbeing (specifically physical wellbeing) through gamification – and often competition – individuals with a history of addiction or eating disorders may be vulnerable to issues triggered by this messaging. For instance, those with a history of eating disorders may be triggered to relapse if encouraged by their employer and peers to lose weight, scrutinise their diet or increase their exercise level – even if the intention is positive.
We live in a society where, too often, individuals are celebrated for doing exactly that which is harming them – in these instances, trying to gamify or increase uptake of physical wellbeing could consequently harm someone’s mental wellbeing. To avoid this, ensure all wellbeing initiatives are optional and factor this awareness into messaging: consider your wording – place emphasis on improving mental wellbeing, finding ways of enjoying time outdoors or moving your body etcetera, as opposed to “losing weight” or “exercising more”.
When it comes to finding a wellbeing solution that works for everybody in your organisation, the delivery is just as important as the initiative. Gamification can work brilliantly for many individuals, but it’s critical to work with your HR and internal communications teams to ensure the messaging and overall initiative is sensitive to everyone; empowering all employees to pursue wellbeing in their own ways.
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Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience and wellbeing for more than two decades. The last 11 years have been spent working as part of the senior leadership team at Benefex where Gethin leads thought leadership as Chief Innovation Officer.
As a frequent writer and speaker on employee experience and employee wellbeing, Gethin has been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Sun, The Huffington Post and The Financial Times as well as all major HR, Reward and Pensions publications. Gethin has been listed as one of the world’s top 101 Global Employee Experience Influencers for the last two years running, is listed on the Employee Engagement Powerlist, is one of LinkedIn’s top global contributors and an Inspiring Leader 2021. Gethin is also a regular keynote speaker, ex-Chair of Wellbeing at the UK Government-backed Engage for Success and a Fellow at the RSA.
In 2018, Gethin published his first book - the HR bestseller ‘A World of Good: Lessons From Around the World in Improving the Employee Experience’, which has gone on to inspire HR and Reward teams at some of the world’s best known brands. In early 2022, Gethin co-authored his second book ‘Das Menschliche Büro - The Human(e) Office’ a collaboration between leading academics and workplace professionals from across Europe. In October 2022, Gethin published his “third” book ‘A Work In Progress: Unlocking Wellbeing to Create More Sustainable and Resilient Organisations’ which also became an immediate bestseller.