Three ‘stealth’ strategies to engage employees in health initiatives when wellness programs fail

Three ‘stealth’ strategies to engage employees in health initiatives when wellness programs fail

Crystal Graham
(© Zoran Zeremski –

As companies deal with rising rates of employee burnout, high turnover and absenteeism, businesses are looking to health and wellness programs to try to keep employees happy.

However, in most cases, these programs are falling short or are underutilized by employees.

Part of the problem is that traditional approaches that urge employees to make healthier choices because it’s good for them don’t resonate with employees.

  • A recent study by Stanford University School of Medicine found employers should instead use “stealth” strategies to engage their employees about health and wellness. The intention is not to deceive employees into eating better or getting more exercise, but rather it is a way to tap into the deeper needs and desires of their employees while improving their health and well-being as a side effect, according to the study.

Workplace wellbeing expert Laura Putnam has worked extensively with employers to improve workplace well-being, is a strong proponent of using stealth strategies and believes it should be more widely adopted by employers who are serious about supporting their employees’ health and well-being.

Putnam offered three stealth strategies that may be used in the workplace.

Step one: Sneaking wellness into non-wellness initiatives

“Going stealth, or “sneaking” wellness into non-wellness workplace initiatives begins with identifying top organizational priorities,” said Putnam.

Non-wellness workplace initiatives could include leadership development or safety training.

Organizational priorities could be addressing gaps in leadership, retaining and attracting top talent or increasing levels of productivity.

Step two: It’s all in the name

“The second step is to call it something other than ‘wellness’ or ‘well-being,” she said.

For example, instead of issuing a call to “improve one’s health,” reframe as a call to better “manage one’s energy.”

Step three: Infuse well-being into workplace initiatives

“Avoid building stand-alone wellness programs and instead find creative ways to infuse well-being into these top-tiered initiatives,” Putnam said.

For example, train managers on how they can build “winning teams,” by modeling the practice of well-being (such as avoiding sending after-hours emails), talking about well-being and creating team-based practices, such as walking meetings.

Why traditional strategies don’t work

Laura Putnam
Laura Putnam

One typical strategy is to “build it and assume they will come.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that most don’t.

In fact, the largest study to date on the impact of workplace wellness programs shows that 80 percent of employees opt out, on average.

Another typical strategy is using incentives, whereby employers pay employees to participate. Sounds like a good idea, but this approach is rife with potential downsides, according to Putnam.

For starters, pay someone to do something and immediately they’ll be suspicious.

Second, while incentives and penalties may be useful in encouraging people to perform one-time activities, they are less effective in encouraging people to engage over time.

“In fact, some research shows that incentives and penalties may actually diminish motivation over time,” Putnam said.

Putnam is an international public speaker and author of Workplace Wellness That Works. She has been featured in USA Today, Forbes, Parade Magazine, Fastcompany, ABC and more.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.