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Using Technology for Increased Employee Engagement in Health and Fitness Programs

Dave Monahan

A stethoscope across the keyboard of a laptop.

The biggest contributor to rising US healthcare costs, according to the CDC, is life style choice. A person’s lifestyle is a major factor in our chronic disease epidemic and accounts for 75 percent of the money spent per year on US healthcare. Meanwhile, the CDC also reports that 65 percent of adults do not participate in regular, leisure-time physical activity.  Americans, in fact, spend an average of 56 hours per week not moving – either staring at computer screens, driving, or collapsed in front of their televisions.  This is literally killing them, by way of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses.

However, not all is lost. The good news is that increasing physical activity – even slightly – is the single most effective way to improve one’s health – including preventing and managing diseases. This is extremely attractive to employers since effective wellness programs have been shown to improve the health of their workforce, reduce healthcare costs, as well as increase productivity.

While corporate wellness programs strive to get employees more active, like too many New Year’s resolutions, programs often fall short because people stop participating – and return to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. This has led many businesses to investigate the use of technology combined with wellness programs to increase and maintain employee engagement.

But throwing technology at the problem without proper strategy and/or support programs may not accomplish the desired result.

The following are five tips, that when implemented together will engage employees for long-term success:

  • Make it easy as possible to participate
  • Use helpful reminders
  • Develop engaging programs
  • Provide incentives that motivate employees
  • Include social support systems

Make it really easy:

Let us face it, for most people exercising is tough enough without having to do extra tasks as part of a wellness program. Technology can help; but if employees have to fill out online forms, maintain their exercise records, charge device batteries, synch up data, press buttons, etc., it is much more likely that they will stop participating over time. The good news is that some wellness devices wirelessly and securely transmit all activity data through the cloud to personal web applications without employees lifting a finger (other than attaching a small device to their clothing at the beginning of each day). Their daily activity is automatically recorded and uploaded where it is available for easy viewing and personalization.

Provide gentle reminders:

Gentle “nudges” can often get us back on track when we aren’t meeting personal goals. Once wellness goals are set by each individual, technology can be used to send personalized reminders when no physical activity has been recorded for several hours (“It may be time to get up and stretch those legs…”), an employee hasn’t recorded any motion for a day (“Did you forget to put on the device?”), or an employee isn’t on track to meet weekly or monthly exercise goals (“You are still five-miles short of your weekly goal.”). Likewise, employees who can’t find half-hour daily blocks of physical activity, per CDC guidelines, can be encouraged to do three 10-minute walks per day.

There are many approaches to this, including using email or text messages to encourage employees to ramp it up. The advantage is that people generally find automated systems to be non-threatening; so, they have a greater likelihood of being effective.

Offer engaging programs:

The difference between accessing raw data that notes that an employee walked 14 miles last week and a program that turns data into a form of “infotainment” is often the difference between failure and success. Take that same 14 miles and compare it against an employee’s personal weekly goals, or against other employees, who have created a group with similar goals. Show what time of day or days of the week the employee is most active or sedentary, or plot physical activity on a map so an employee can see how far he would be on a walk across the Appalachian Trail, Grand Canyon or even the country. These are the kinds of engaging approaches that pull employees back to the website frequently to see how they’re doing.

Such programs may also lead to friendly banter (or competitions) with other employees in their group about how they are/aren’t achieving their goals. Some companies have taken this an extra step, providing additional incentives, such as rewarding employees when they are in the top 10 percent of their peer group’s activity levels. Still, others have issued corporate challenges that encourage whole groups or departments to attain aggressive goals. No one approach is best for every company. Instead, businesses should experiment with creative programs to explore the ones that work best for their employees

Aligning the Incentives:

Employers should consider a number of incentives to encourage participation in wellness programs including: increasing contributions to health care premiums, offering free or discounted fitness gear, granting additional personal days off, awarding gift cards, etc. Such employee incentives work best if all five of these tips are implemented together since the best odds for long-term engagement comes from a comprehensive program.

One creative incentive is the concept of “gamification,” in which techniques from video games are applied to wellness programs. Employees, for example, may receive virtual badges of honor for accomplishing certain milestones. These badges can be redeemed for meaningful “prizes” such as a day off for eight virtual merit badges or a $25 gift card for a specific merit badge.  Social techniques can then be layered on top of these, so that employees can treat awards as currency and trade them to other employees for objects or services.

Provide Support System:

Doing it alone on exercise programs is difficult for most people. Enabling employees to share their wellness program progress with trusted others is critical to long-term success. Such information may include activity levels, weight gains/losses, blood pressure increases/decreases and other physiological data. Whether it is a healthcare professional, co-worker, close friend, other members of a weight management group or close family member, many wellness systems enable employees to share their progress with others online. Maintaining data on social platforms enables others to provide positive feedback and suggestions, offer next steps to get to the next physical fitness level and provide related information such as health tips and food choices.

While it may seem straightforward to get people to be physically active for about one-half hour per day, the fact that nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t achieve this speaks to the need to find new and creative solutions. The use of technology can be a powerful force in creating successful wellness plans, but must be applied in a thoughtful manner. When program providers or employers integrate quality wellness programs and technology with these five tips, they can expect increased employee engagement and long-term success.

About The Author

Dave Monahan is President and CEO of FitLinxx (www.FitLinxx.com), a provider of health and wellness technology that motivates people to live actively and improve their well-being.

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