Rising health care costs are driving more employers to take up the “sticks painted orange” approach to wellness, with 47% saying they either already use or plan to use financial penalties over the next three to five years for employees who do not participate in certain health improvement programs, according to new Hewitt numbers.

However, in a recent contribution to HRE Online, health care consultant Carol Hartnett, questioned whether such an approach is the most effective in achieving long-term behavior change toward health and fitness — the true holy grail that workplace wellness programs are after.

To make her point, Hartnett cited an article in the Spring 2010 Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article’s author Aaron Dalton “points out that, while marketers and scientists have relied on fear, reason and money to promote more responsible actions, such tactics don't result in permanent change.”

So, what does work? Humor, Dalton finds, among other factors like surprise and attractive design. He points to Volkswagen’s piano-stairs experiment, which increased the use of stairs 66%.

Besides the fact that I would love to have a set of piano stairs at my house, I took from Dalton’s conclusions that employers need to get more creative about their wellness efforts. Yes, cash works — and works well. We’ve all heard the success stories by now.

But isn’t that just picking the low-hanging fruit? Of course, not all of you (perhaps none of you) are going to make piano stairs the cornerstone of your wellness program, but as Shawn Connors, president of Hope Health told me recently:  “We got scientific about health/wellness, but forgot about the art of reaching people.” Hmmmm.

Chew on that for a while, will you? Then, check out the piano-stairs video and comment with your thoughts on how to bring your own version of it to your wellness program.

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