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Eight Tips for Increasing Wellness Program Engagement

Dave Monahan

These tips will get your employees as engaged as these people!

Eight Tips for Increasing Wellness Program Engagement

Healthcare costs are spiraling, with the U.S. annual per capita costs of healthcare projected to increase six-fold from 1985 to 2013. As a result, many employers have begun implementing workplace wellness programs, which encourage employees to be active and lead healthy lifestyles – and may reduce healthcare premiums, lower absenteeism and improve productivity. In fact, according to the American Journal of Health Promotion’s in-depth analysis, for every dollar invested in wellness, employers saw an average savings of $5.81 due to improved employee health and reduced medical claims.

But if wellness programs aren’t engaging, workers lose interest quickly, programs become far less effective and savings are illusory. Fortunately, documented studies FitLinxx demonstrate that combining the right technology with effective wellness programs results in long-term user engagement and positive behavior changes. The numbers are impressive: 70 percent engagement rates after three months. So what is this secret recipe for creating engaging wellness programs?

Here are eight tips that will help get you there:

1. Use Activity Tracking Devices

Wireless activity tracking devices enable individuals to see how far they’ve walked and how many calories they’ve burned. Such devices motivate employees to be active, help employees track their own goal progress, and compare results to those of co-workers or groups. There are a range of activity devices on the market, so be sure the device selected is accurate. Some devices enable employees to track other activities beyond just walking and running (such as biking and elliptical use) and let them view results on the web or mobile devices.

2. Keep it Simple

For most people, exercising is tough enough without doing extra tasks as part of a wellness program. Technology can help. If employees have to fill out online forms, maintain their exercise records, charge device batteries, sync up data, press buttons, etc., they likely will stop participating over time. The good news is that some activity tracking devices wirelessly and securely transmit all activity data through the cloud to personal web applications and mobile devices without employees lifting a finger — other than attaching a small device to their clothing at the beginning of each day. Their daily activity is easily available for viewing and personalization. The easier the program, the more likely people will stick with it.

3. Send 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. Some applications even send different motivating messages every day. The advantage is that people generally find automated systems to be non-threatening and very effective.

4. Provide Support

Going it alone on exercise programs is difficult for most people, so 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 and losses, blood pressure increases and decreases and other physiological data. Whether it is a healthcare professional, co-worker, close friend, or family member, many wellness systems enable employees to securely 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 provides related information such as health tips and food choices.

In addition, many plans include support and guidance from in-house educational sessions with physicians, coaches and others. Live sessions with invited experts are often very popular and help to provide the support that some employees seek. Allowing employees to share their experiences and results with friends and co-workers can create an employee support system that provides positive feedback to other employees when they achieve their goals.

5. Ensure Programs are Fun, Social and Viral

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 with other employees in their group about how they are 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 single approach is best for every company. Instead, businesses should experiment with creative programs to explore the ones that work best for their employees. By creating fun and engaging activities, companies will motivate employees to increase their activity, change behavior, and make healthier choices.

6. Align Incentives to Make it Rewarding

According to a recent survey of businesses, more companies utilized wellness incentives in 2011 (68 percent) compared to the previous year (49 percent). This will only increase over time. In 2014, as part of the Affordable Care Act, the maximum financial incentive for “standards-based” wellness programs will jump from the current 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of coverage. 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 as part of a comprehensive program for long-term engagement.

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 earned for eight virtual merit badges or a $25 gift card for a 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. Companies should also consider personalized programs, in which individuals create custom experiences that meet their needs and motivate them.

7. Obtain Leadership Buy-in and Participation

Leadership should establish a strong culture of wellness in the organization and actively participate in the program. For starters, executives should be visible proponents of the program and be actively involved in its kickoff and rollout. Some have gone so far as scheduling specific times that employees can and should exercise during business hours. Others have linked managers’ key performance indicators to measurements for employee engagement. Still others have tied portions of management bonuses to measurable program successes. The bottom line is that organizations with active management buy-in and participation tend to have more successful programs.

8. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is central to ensuring that employees understand the overall objectives of the program, a necessary precursor to their participation. Many organizations have found that communicating regularly, through different means over an extended period of time is particularly effective. That may include running wellness education sessions during employee benefits renewal meetings and company meetings, as well as posting program information and results on company intranets, and making written FAQ sheets accessible online and on physical bulletin boards. Other options include using materials such as posters, postcards, flyers pins, t-shirts, videos, etc. to raise awareness. Some organizations have also found success in using written or video endorsements from leadership as well as personal success testimonials from employees.

About The Author

Dave joined FitLinxx from Microsoft in 2006 as Executive VP of Products and Markets, becoming President and CEO in 2008. With expertise in sales, marketing, engineering and growing businesses through partnerships, Dave has helped transform FitLinxx into an industry-leading provider of activity devices and wireless healthcare products. Prior to joining Microsoft, Dave held senior management positions with SkyTel and Phillips International. Dave has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Pennsylvania State University and an MBA in International Business from Loyola College.

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