Employers cited increased “engagement” as their number one priority when designing wellness offerings, according to ShapeUp’s Employer Wellness Survey. And in their webinar, “Debating the Results of Our Wellness Survey,” ShapeUp noted that respondents had used the terms “engagement” and “participation” interchangeably. Throughout the webinar, ShapeUp chose to follow suit.
For me, this part of the webinar was a roller-coaster ride. I was disappointed to hear that employers consider these terms synonymous. But then I was thrilled to hear ShapeUp pose the question, “What does engagement mean to you?” — a question we all should be asking. But then bummed again to hear most respondents fail to consider that engagement might mean something quite different from participation.
When I first started hearing about health engagement, the very purpose of the phrase was to set engagement apart from participation. Engagement referred to having a genuine and emotionally-influenced connection to health and, in many cases, health behavior change. Participation meant merely taking some sort of action — regardless of sincerity or value (completing a program, getting a biometric screening, and so forth).
Some employees participate in programs exclusively to obtain an incentive. Are they engaged?
Imagine a participant who can obtain an incentive for completing, say, a six-session telephonic health coaching program (a common model). All the participant wants, in this example, is the incentive. The health coach uses their arsenal of skills, techniques and resources to shift what they deem a precontemplator to a contemplation stage of change, but to no avail. The participant says as little as possible (that is, disengages) on the calls, politely agrees with whatever the coach says, and doesn’t give the process another thought between sessions. They are just trying to make it through to the end of the the third call. In most programs, this will be measured as participation. But should it be considered engagement?
A simpler example: If an employee completes a biometric screening, but never gives a thought to the results… They have participated in the screening. Are they engaged?
As we wellness directors draw more employees going through the motions to snatch the carrots and evade the sticks we’ve grown so fond of brandishing, we’ll need to develop metrics that distinguish between participation and true engagement. But will we make progress in this regard if we just decide that participation and engagement are the same thing? Are we just resigning ourselves: “Well, we can’t measure the difference, so let’s just say they are the same”? Or, worst yet, are we camouflaging unwilling participation as engagement?
Our lexicon will drift as it may. If wellness directors want to call engagement participation, so be it. But then perhaps we need a new word to make this distinction. In the interim, we are confusing the matter for the rest of the world. In human resources or organizational development circles, for example, employee engagement is a hot issue. But employee engagement does not equal participation — if it did, than employee engagement rates would simply equal attendance at work. (And how will we ever make our case that wellness programs are a key driver of employee engagement?)
The Conference Board defines employee engagement as “heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager or co-workers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.” (Other uses of engagement – customer engagement, for example — also arose specifically to distinguish emotional connection from perfunctory action). We risk eroding our credibility in our organizations by accepting that, in wellness, engagement and participation are the same.
In our environment of incentive-laced wellness programs, embodied by the proliferation of so-called outcomes-based programs, the distinction between participation and true engagement becomes even more significant. When an employee enrolls in a program (or, I’ll argue, even achieves a biometric improvement) exclusively to reduce their insurance premium or access a better medical plan, it may not be because they are engaged. Heck, it’s barely participation. I’d use a completely different word to describe it: compliance.
And I’m not sure compliance is wellness, at all.
(This post is fifth in a series. For the full series, click here).