The Internal Motivators that Drive Employee Wellness Programs

May 8, 2017 Deb Broderson

The Internal Motivators that Drive Employee Wellness Programs

Organizations must embrace the reality that employees engage in wellness programming primarily for their own reasons, not the needs and interests of their employers. What we, as humans, want to do is largely a function of universal motivators. These motivators consist of; our desire for autonomy, achievement, connectedness, and the pursuit of a greater cause in life. Understanding these universal motivators is of central importance to wellness practitioners because they drive the sustainability of wellness programming across the enterprise.  Although extrinsic (external) motivation, such as rewards, play a part in changing behavior, it is intrinsic (internal) motivation that will drive sustainable behavioral changes.

When aligned with employee wellness program design and delivery, the core intrinsic motivators that provide the best “bang for the buck” are: autonomy, achievement, connectedness, and greater cause.  Let’s review each of these.


Autonomy is all about having a sense of control of the meaningful things in our lives, such as work, personal relationships, and our general well-being. Wellness practitioners can leverage autonomy by finding practical opportunities that enable program participants to make their own decisions about how they pursue sustainable wellness.

Choice is crucial to supporting autonomy. When given a choice of physical activities, program participants are more inclined to become actively involved and to stay involved than if they are told what to do. An example of a limiting program strategy would be a company-wide 10K run. That’s not to say a 10K run is a bad idea – as long as there are other options available to program participants who prefer activities other than running. Increasing the variety of activities is a strong argument for adopting the ecosystem model of partnering with other organizations to expand the framework of options without proportionately increasing the time, effort, and cost to administrate.


Achievement is a powerful intrinsic motivator, largely because it can be broken down into very simple victories that cascade down, creating meaningful improvements in the individual and the organization. One of the best ways for wellness practitioners to leverage achievement as a motivator is to provide a goal-setting framework. This framework should be well-aligned with the individual’s needs (while supporting the autonomy motivator) and should provide frequent positive reinforcement of desired behaviors (e.g., increased physical activity, improved food choices, improved sleep duration). This behavior then can be easily measured in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Providing incremental goal-setting opportunities enables program participants to experience positive behavioral reinforcement. Under this design if participants veer off track, they can easily get back on track.


Connectedness is the universal desire to interact and care for others. It is advisable to continuously evaluate and provide opportunities for participants to interact with and support each other. This will develop a wellness ecosystem that leverages the internal motivation to stay connected. Unfortunately, too many programs focus more on competition than on collaboration. While there is probably little harm in program structures that include friendly competition, the most effective programming emphasizes opportunities to create a many-to-one support structure. This structure provides the entire community with positive reinforcement from within. Team-based programming is an example of a simple framework options that can leverage the internal motivator to be connected.

Greater Cause

The pursuit of a greater cause can be extremely powerful as an intrinsic motivator within a wellness-program framework, especially when aligned with autonomy, achievement, and connectedness. Consider matching the support pledges that wellness programming participants secure for a charitable cause of their choosing. Based on their completion of health-promoting activities they personally enjoy, participants could also support a greater cause, while achieving better personal wellness. Providing a framework in which the activity could be sustained over a prolonged period of time (e.g., three months) and combined with team options would engage all of the intrinsic motivators.

Our future as a prosperous and productive society largely depends on organizations seeking out and trying to improve the health and well-being of workers and their families. Employee wellness programs and their support ecosystems should be viewed as continuous improvement programs. 

Looking for more information or to have a discussion about your employee wellness program?   

Send me a note,  I’d love to chat.



About the Author

Deb Broderson

Deb Broderson comes to Perks with 30 years of diverse experience leading channel marketing, marketing operations and program management teams within the technology industry. Deb has provided strategic direction to Fortune 500 clients, developed and executed global, multi-channel, go-to-market strategies and created worldwide field marketing organizations. Deb has worked on both the agency and client-side of the business, providing a well-rounded perspective to client challenges. Deb was honored as one of the Top 50 Channel Chiefs in North America by CRN.

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