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Want to change your employees’ habits? Sell it!

Over the years, I’ve attended and participated in countless health and wellness conferences.  Inevitably, at some point, an executive will stand up and ask, “How do I get my employees engaged in our company’s workplace wellness programs?”

It’s a great question — though one that’s slightly amusing if you think about it from a business perspective.

In these rooms are people who’ve risen to the top of their companies, in no small part due to their ability to sell product benefits and paint a picture of a better future.  Yet, when it comes to internal communications, all too many fail to see how these same sales skills must be applied.

Think about it. Your business likely spends a significant chunk of its budget each year on marketing, client meetings, sales incentives, etc.  We do this because we know that no matter how good our product is, we need to remind people about its benefits and keep our brand top-of-mind in a crowded marketplace.  So, why, when we’re “selling” something internally, do we expect our employees to automatically change their behaviors without giving them a compelling value proposition?

The fact of the matter is that motivating lasting behavior change takes more than just promoting health. Over the years, the health care industry has learned a lot about the “why” behind changed behaviors. A key takeaway from these studies is that when you’re planning and marketing your health and wellness programs, you need to go beyond basic health improvement messaging if you want to drive long-term success. Putting this research to work can help you target, engage and promote your programs more effectively to your employees.

Here are five ways you can increase the odds of “selling” health and wellness within your company:

  • Target a message based on “what” you want to change. For example, messages that talk about the “cost” of a behavior are “loss-framed” messages (not using sunscreen increases your risk of skin cancer); messages that promote a benefit are called “gain-framed” messages (sunscreen helps keep your skin healthier). What psychologists in one study discovered is that gain-framed messages worked better in cancer prevention behaviors, while loss-framed messages worked better for cancer detection behaviors*. Pay attention to what you’re trying to achieve when deciding how to promote it.
  • Reward employees now, rather than later. More recent studies show people are motivated when a wellness program rewards them early on. For instance, instead of promoting longer life or better health as a reason to take part, promote the short-term effects, such as increased energy, feeling good or increased self-esteem**.
  • Think like a marketer. Ask yourself how to get your employees to be repeat customers. The “save money and lose weight” message probably won’t cut it anymore. Here’s why: let’s say your employee takes part in a weight-loss program and reaches the set goal, which was the reason for going. Now what? Or say he or she doesn’t reach the goal. How do you keep that person focused on good health? Appeal to what would keep him or her coming back, such as feeling stronger or a sense of happiness**.
  • Give employees permission to take care of themselves first. We live in a caregiver society and often prioritize taking care of others (spouses, children, aging parents) and our life roles (professional, leader, volunteer, activist, friend) ahead of self-care. Self-care is your ability to take care of your own health – prevent diseases, stay healthy or cope with illness or disability***. Research suggests giving people permission to put themselves first helps them actively choose to value the program or behavior highly, connect with it and add it into their everyday lifestyle for the greatest chance of success**.
  • Know your audience and segment your message when you can. For example, one study found fostering positive body image with a message about self-care and self-worth was more effective for women to keep off weight long-term than messages about being physically active or losing weight. However, it didn’t affect men with the same results****.

Like all sales endeavors, there will be ups and downs when it comes to getting people to buy in to your wellness programming. Non-participation doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  It just means you haven’t found the right reason for that particular “customer.” Re-frame your value proposition and re-communicate your program’s benefits to drive higher rates of adoption. Above all, remember that few sales are accomplished with just one outreach.

For more tips on building a workplace wellness program that works, download Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s free “Wellness in the workplace: Your no-fluff, real-stuff guide to building a wellness strategy.”


* American Psychological Association website: To Motivate Healthy Behavior, It’s Often Not What you Say, But How You Say It (Accessed June 2015):

** Metabolic Medical Institute, Health Promoters Should Stop Promoting Health: New Science for Behavior Sustainability (April 2013):

*** World Health Organization, Self-care in the Context of Primary Health Care Report of the Regional Consultation Bangkok, Thailand: (January 2009):

**** World Health Organization, Self-care in the Context of Primary Health Care Report of the Regional Consultation Bangkok, Thailand: (January 2009):

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Nobile is a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry whose experience includes time with Rush Prudential Health Plans, Aetna, and United Healthcare. Prior to joining Anthem, Nobile served as the Director of Sales and Account Management for the Midwest region at UniCare, a health benefits company based in Chicago and owned by Anthem’s parent company and also ran UniCare’s Eastern Region with offices.

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