23 Apr / Three important lessons we learned with our employee health challenges that you can implement for any program

by Mike Tinney

Hindsight is 20/20, and we all wish we had it. Breaking new ground is exciting but it’s a playbook-free zone so you have to figure things out as you go along and hope some of the best practices you’ve developed, professionally, work in a new area. That was the case for us at least, when we decided to make a game out of being healthy.

What do we do? We make the most engaging employee walking/exercise challenge in the market. Here for you, are some of our key “learning moments” that can be applied to any program or health initiative you’re cooking up.

1. Meet people where they are, but take them somewhere.

When working on topics like health change, behavioral shifts, or optimal activity levels vs. current activity levels, you have to start people wherever they are. Everyone has their own capacity/output capabilities, and while they can be grouped together, an employee population will have a lot of variation (usually). You can’t expect your couch potatoes to keep up with your weekend warriors, so you need to make sure any program you implement, or any initiative you start, allows each participant to feel as though his or her daily efforts are meaningful, and that that whatever it is you’re asking of them is achievable.

“You need to make sure any program you implement, or any initiative you start, allows each participant to feel as though his or her daily efforts are meaningful, and that that whatever it is you’re asking of them is achievable.”

There are lots of different ways to accomplish this. The easiest way is to have different programs based on capacity. Another, slightly more nuanced way, is to have a program that “rubber bands” people together, allowing participants of different activity levels to make their individual contributions in a way that lets them all matter, together. You can do this by setting a minimum standard that is expected of everyone, and then allowing for additional milestones or accomplishments by and for those who can and want to push farther.

At FIX Health we have evolved to the point where we use a hybrid of the two in our larger group challenges. We have standard and extreme difficulty settings, and challenge participants self-select what difficulty level is right for them. Once they’re in a challenge, everyone has a minimum threshold they’re encouraged to meet. Individuals can go above this, to the benefit of their whole team.

2. Design your group health program/challenge like your grandparents designed community swimming pools.

You heard me right. Keep in mind that your job as the program runner is to get as many employees as possible into the pool. So let’s start by painting the picture of the old school community swimming pool.

It was a big rectangle, or sometimes an “L” shape. It had plenty of room for everyone. It had a shallow end that you could safely stand in. It had a deep end where you couldn’t touch the bottom. It had a diving board that you could do “stunts” off of. It had life guards, real people who kept an eye on everything, but weren’t needed most of the time, because how to use the pool was pretty easy to figure out. It had mandatory down times where everyone took a break.

It was also refreshing. Usually convenient. Often full of your friends and neighbors.

If you weren’t that comfortable with the whole idea of the pool, or if you weren’t a strong swimmer, you could just stay in the shallow end. You were still enjoying the pool. You were still interacting with your community. But you were in the part of the pool that was right for you.

As you became more comfortable with the pool and better at swimming, you’d venture into the 5’ area, where your feet just barely touched the bottom and you had to mostly swim. Maybe you stayed near the side at first… or maybe you didn’t. Maybe that was as far as you ever went… maybe you went all the way to the deep end where you couldn’t touch the bottom at all.

Maybe you got confident enough to use the diving board.

In any case, the pool, a relatively simple design, was genius in that it appealed to a wide range of swimmers, who had a wide range of skills and confidence.

Your employee health programs and challenges should be the same. Easy to get into. Inclusive. Room for growth and complexity. High degrees of visibility so you can see what other people are doing… and learn from them. They should be coached or observed so that if there is a problem, there’s a trained expert there to help. And lastly, a little bit of a regular break cycle, so people don’t burn themselves out.

3. Keep it fresh, but not at the expense of core habits.

With our challenges, people go on team adventures against make-believe circumstances… like zombies. We know we need to keep things fresh, but we also know we’re in the business of building skills and habits… so we need to also keep our programs focused on the results we’re being paid to deliver. Here’s where you’re mileage may vary.

We’ve seen some programs do nutrition or weight loss one quarter. Then walking another quarter. Sleep/recovery a third quarter, etc…

We’re not going to diss that because it is a good way to introduce a lot of different health habits. Our philosophy, though, is that none of them stick all that well because the population is given more of a temporary agenda with each one, and once it’s done, onto the next.

We take more of an “anchor habit” philosophy. We look to build mindfulness and expertise around one core habit, knowing that in time, attention to supporting habits will be required in order to become truly excellent at the core habit. The habit we chose is activity.

The US Dept of Health recommends that Americans work to achieve 150 active minutes each week. An active minute is anything from brisk walking all the way to sports and exercise classes. Not all minutes are equal, but this is a great general guideline that everyone can apply themselves to. Approximately 5% of Americans can meet and achieve this standard. Over 50% of our program participants do.

“These supporting habits, like diet, rest and hydration, more easily fall into line to support the primary habit.”

And you know what? When you’re active for 30 minutes a day, you sleep better. When you find your body responding to the activity you’re doing, you have a great basis for motivation to better nourish yourself. When you break a little sweat… you’re thirsty. These supporting habits, like diet, rest and hydration, more easily fall into line to support the primary habit of activity.

So our variety is in challenge content, or… adventures. Our app works a little bit like Netflix for activity challenges. You can choose from a variety of challenges, each with their own storylines, step and exercise requirements. You can further modify them by changing the difficulty levels.

Up until now, our level of variety covered maybe a year of employee engagement. Our program needed to go to the next level, so very recently (this month in fact) we have added our 4th challenge and included new encounter types. We took a page from our video game background and added something called a “boss battle.” A boss battle is an encounter so powerful that it requires an extraordinary effort by all participants. The new Risky Provisions challenge has two of them, and our challenge participants will have to figure out new ways to organize and cooperate with one another to take on the boss battles and win.

Whatever your flavor of variety, please please please make certain that each new stage or change builds upon what’s gone on previously. If you don’t do this, your people won’t actually grow and improve. They’ll just do your prescribed activity temporarily and then go back to old habits.

Until next time,



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