What motivates you in wellness?
Some people love 5 a.m. boot camp workouts with a hard-nosed trainer who verbally whips them into shape. Other folks shudder at the very thought, greatly preferring a Sunday afternoon run with a group of friends.
Much as every person’s wellness journey is individual, so is their reason for staying on track. And by tapping into the type of motivation people respond to, your wellness program can be a powerful driver of success.
Normal human experience tells us that the motivation to be well waxes and wanes. But researchers at Penn State put a scientific spin on this conventional wisdom when they followed 33 students over a 10-week period. The researchers asked the students to record both their intentions to be physically active and their actual activity.
The researchers found that motivation does indeed fluctuate weekly, driven by competing demands for our time, such as work or school deadlines. When people are less motivated, wellness falls by the wayside, the researchers reported.
“[T]hese lapses in motivation really seem to be destructive,” one said.
The Carrot, the Stick … Or Something Else?
While motivation is bound to fluctuate, goal-directed behavior can be triggered. The problem is that not every employee will have the same reaction to the same trigger.
In a 2017 study of available literature on educational motivation and temperament, researchers examined how different aspects of temperament (reward and punishment sensitivities) predicted the goals students seek to achieve in relation to learning and performance. The findings determined that students’ goals and outcomes were indeed partly dictated by their sensitivity to these environmental cues.
In short, people do things for different reasons. And understanding the reasons that spark your team’s motivation can mean the difference between a wellness program that flies and one that flops.
Generally, people tend to lean toward one of two types of motivators: competition or cooperation. Your program’s wellness challenges may already reflect these two options:
- In cooperative challenges, groups of employees work together to achieve a shared goal. They support and encourage each other throughout the challenge, and if they succeed, they all share in the reward.
- In competitive challenges, employees measure their achievements against each other. The motivating factor is the drive to come out on top.
The Pros and Cons of Competition
Competition has sparked some of humanity’s greatest achievements, from the moon landing to the iPhone. Some research indicates competition may be the strongest wellness motivator, as well.
A team at the University of Pennsylvania found that people in a competitive atmosphere worked out 90% more than those in supportive or neutral environments.
“As people were influenced by their neighbors to exercise more, it created a social ratchet, where everyone increased everyone else’s activity levels,” the study’s author told Time.
On the other hand, competition can spiral out of control. Researchers report in the Harvard Business Review that competition can evoke fear and anxiety as much as excitement.
In business, this can lead to unethical behavior, as employees strive to win at all costs. It’s unclear how this dynamic would play out in a wellness context, but anxiety and stress are the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish with your wellness program.
In other words: Competition can achieve great things, but keep it friendly, not cutthroat.
The Pros and Cons of Cooperation
Humans are social animals. Just knowing that others have our back is often all we need to overcome hurdles. Plus, there’s the subtle pressure of not wanting to let others down.
Brain studies show that participation in cooperative tasks may cause a better perception of oneself and higher cognitive function.
But, as the University of Pennsylvania study alluded to above found, the lowest performers in a cooperative group may hold the entire group back.
“The people who were participating less would actually draw down energy levels and give others a reason or excuse to also participate less,” the study’s author pointed out.
How to Motivate People: Mix it Up
It may be that a combination of competitive and cooperative challenges is the mix of motivation your employees need.
One psychologist studied groups of children attending a basketball camp. What he found is that the kids enjoyed shooting free throws the most when they were working as members of a team against other teams. They competed–but they competed cooperatively.
These findings make sense when you think about it. Some people are natural competitors, while others couldn’t care less whether they win or lose.
The key to motivating your employees toward wellness is to design a wellness program that appeals to the particular combination of temperaments that make up your workforce. This might mean including some highly competitive challenges alongside some cooperative and team-based ones.
You might start by polling your employees to ask what motivates them. You could also speak to managers, human resources representatives, and other people who know your employees best.
And don’t be afraid to experiment, learn what types of challenges get the most participation, and make adjustments. Much like wellness itself, a wellness program is a constant work in progress—and one that benefits from the right fit.