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Wellness Incentives and Gilligan's Island

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

wellness incentives

Most workplace wellness programs rely on incentives to encourage employee participation. Yet, what determines whether incentives work or fail? This blog post answers that question, which is as old as workplace wellness itself.

Suppose your company offers to pay 100 employees to take 10,000 steps a day for the next 5 days. If you offer them enough money, most will complete the challenge and collect. Some may have already been taking 10,000 steps/day before you started rewarding them. They’ll keep on with it, happy to have collected a check from you for continuing their normal behavior.

Of the other employees, maybe 2 or 3 will enjoy walking enough to continue taking 10,000 steps/day on their own after the incentive period ends. And the rest? A week or even a day after you stop paying them, they’ll plop back onto their usual couches.

Your incentive has failed.

Now suppose you offer to pay 100 employees to memorize the Gilligan’s Island theme song and sing it. Most will do it. Here is the difference between singing that song and taking steps. You’ll pay them once to sing it to you once. And yet a day, a week, or even a year later, most of them will still know it by heart. They probably wouldn’t be able to forget it if they tried. I bet you yourself won’t be able to get it out of your head after reading this.

Your incentive has succeeded!

What’s the difference? In the first case, you were trying to pay people to change their own nature. That is doomed to failure. A best-selling book, Drive, by Daniel Pink, has been written about what motivates people, and why wellness incentives don’t work and often even backfire.

In the second case, you were planting something in someone’s brain. Most people love to learn things of interest to them, and you were giving them the opportunity.

What does this have to do with wellness? Apply this same paradigm to wellness and health literacy.

Most wellness programs use incentivization to create health-oriented behavior change. They pay employees to do a task which is supposed to result in healthier habits. Yet without the incentive, the behavior change is lost. On the other hand, playing a game is much like singing a song — it’s enjoyable, fun, and results are much more permanent.

When it comes to education, fun and engaging is our method of choice. For example, when you play the quiz posted on Quizzify's home page, you’ll learn four fairly mind-blowing health facts — about granola bars, toothpaste, CT scans and heartburn pills — that you almost certainly did not already know. And yet knowing these facts will change your opinion about those four things almost immediately.

After you learn them, ask yourself: will you ever forget them? And if you pay your employees once to learn them, will it be like paying them to walk (which they will stop doing as soon as their compensation ends)? Or will it be like paying them to sing about Gilligan, the skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, in that they remember what they learned basically forever?

When employees take quizzes from Quizzify, their new knowledge and increased health literacy will improve their health, while reducing costs.

One of the other issues cited in Drive is that incentives are addictive, so you can’t drop your incentive program now that you’ve seen why incentives don’t work. But perhaps by redirecting your incentive dollars to an activity that inherently lends itself to incentives, you will be able to spend your incentive budget more wisely and get more lasting results.

PS— While Quizzify is engaging on its own, we provide encouraging email templates and incentive strategies to get the ball rolling.

A previous version of this post was published on

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