How to implement technology into your employee wellness plan
Tryggvi Thorgeirsson, M.D., MPH
Corporate wellness programs are growing steadily, and many companies are betting they will keep their costs under control. But how employers utilize technology to fit their workforces’ needs is a critical success factor.
Wellness is rapidly evolving and becoming an integral part of how employers ensure maximum productivity and efficiency of their workforces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that U.S. businesses loses $225.8 billion per year to employee illness and injury. In addition to lost productivity, overall spending on health care rose by nearly $1 trillion between 1996 and 2013.
The rise of chronic, lifestyle-related diseases accounts for a significant impact. Tens of millions of workers suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes. The cost differential per employee with diabetes, for example, amounts to more than $10,000 more per year.
Given the substantial burden of chronic diseases on the workforce, there has been an increase in technology that employers can embed into their wellness programs to promote productivity and efficiency. Leading companies have recognized the need to get to the root of the problem in order to see real progress. We’ve already begun to see shifts taking place as employers prioritize the health of their workforce.
This shift is not only good for employees, but also for business, as wellness programs can provide a significant return on investment. In a well-known example of successful corporate health promotion, smoking rates among Johnson & Johnson employees dropped by more than 66 percent, and the number of employees with high blood pressure or physical inactivity fell by more than 50 percent. As a result, the company returned $2.71 for every $1 spent on the program.
The first key to implementing a successful program is knowing your workforce, including their needs and preferences. For example, wellness programs must take into account potential barriers such as health literacy – the ability to make informed decisions based on one’s understanding of health information. Low health literacy is surprisingly common; the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that nearly 90 percent of adults lack proficient health literacy. While it is not anything to be ashamed of, it is certainly something to be aware of, and reviewing tools from the AHRQ can provide a baseline for understanding the abilities of employees to manage their health.
Identifying the best wellness program for your organization can be a challenge, but resources are widely available to get started. Of course, it’s vital to keep in mind the relevant laws and regulations shaping the framework for voluntary employee wellness programs, including the Affordable Care Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Other resources, such as the Johns Hopkins/Transamerica Center for Health Studies report offer a variety of useful tips on how to proceed with the creation and implementation of a variety of initiatives.
With a clear goal and plan in place for your wellness program, integrating technology is the next important step. In our mobile- and data-dominated world, people are constantly on their devices, logging their every move and sharing it with their social networks. Wellness innovations are capitalizing on this new status quo to promote health engagement more than ever before. For example, technology can enable lifestyle coaches and dietitians to review employee progress towards their health goals in real time and provide remote feedback and support. This trend towards connectivity and personalization at scale is expected to continue—within the next several years, data-driven incentives for employee participation may be the norm.
Ideally, technology will not only spur active participation in a program but also help employees achieve positive health outcomes. By “gamifying” health improvement with elements like teamwork, competition and instant rewards, a wellness program can be framed for what it is: a fun way to improve your health. Technology can provide the platform for employees to work together, communicate with each other and track their progress managing their health – like measuring minutes of meditation, steps in a day, or days without junk food. Following an evidence-based structure for these healthy activities – such as the CDC’s guidelines for lifestyle change – can help ensure the program has a foundation of science to support employees at risk on their way to wellness.
With all of the data that technology can yield, making use of it is essential to making your program effective. Dig into your data to understand what the numbers say and why. If the information isn’t painting a cohesive picture of your workforce, or if retention seem to be trending downward, you’ll have visibility into what’s working and decision support tools to adapt your program for improved engagement. In addition to the quantitative metrics – like healthy activities or number of employees screened to be at risk for illness – take a routine pulse of the more qualitative feedback on your program – like what your employees have to say about their experience participating. Ultimately, it’s how helpful the program is to your employees that will make healthy habits stick.
Finally, selecting the right technology for a wellness program must be done within specific parameters for your organization. With platforms designed for wellness screening, health engagement, biometric tracking and more, it can be difficult to account for all of these components with a single budget. If possible, try to find technology that covers the most meaningful needs for your goals for organizational wellness. Survey your workforce’s preferences: would they be likely to use their smartphones or their wearable devices – or both – to manage their health? Narrowing down your options can help you find the best fit for your employees and your budget.
Workplace wellness programs are nearly inevitable, given the health care trends among workers, rising costs and the potential for both savings and return on investment. However, these initiatives should be carefully chosen, evidence-based, accessible for all employees, and integrated with technology to achieve the goals of a healthier workforce and lower overall health costs.
Tryggvi Thorgeirsson, M.D., MPH, is a guest lecturer at Harvard on applying behavioral economics for lifestyle interventions, a guest lecturer at MIT on data-driven health, and co-founder & CEO of SidekickHealth, a digital health company that harnesses big data, artificial intelligence and behavioral economics to help employers and providers screen for, prevent and manage chronic diseases.