July 17, 2014

New Technologies That Give Wellness Programs a Boost

Although national wellness month ended June 30, that doesn’t mean organizations should take a break from workplace wellness programs. In fact, this is a great time to give those programs a mid-summer boost as employees spend more time outdoors and allocate more of their grocery budgets to the fresh fruit and vegetables that are so plentiful in the warmer months.

That mid-summer boost could come from one of the many health and fitness technologies that are flooding the market these days. While technology may contribute to the problem of expanding waistlines and declining fitness—think, workers spending hours in front of a screen at work and children playing video games instead of a pick-up ballgame—it can also provide the solution.

Here are some technologies that may be a “fit” for your workplace wellness programs and a “hit” with employees:

Activity trackers. These are so-called “wearable fitness technologies” and more than 300 kinds were on display at last winter’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. They were also a big hit at the PPAI (Promotional Products Association International) show that MI attended the same month. And employees seem to love them: When a Colorado Springs school district offered an activity tracker to employees who agreed to take part in biometric health screenings, 68 percent signed up.

Whether tracking steps, distance, or calories, activity trackers seem to have a place in almost any wellness program. And they work. One study cited at the CES claimed a 43 percent increase in “fitness” resulted when participants “strapped on the monitor” regardless of the motivation.

Text messages.  The best way to get health-related information in real-time to your always on workforce. A message as simple as a prompt for a wellness activity helps employees to stay on track toward goals and has the added benefit of driving accountability and engagement. According to businessinsurance.com, Michelin North American saw a 26 percent jump in completed health risk assessments for employees who agreed to receive text prompts.

Gamification. When it comes to a health engagement strategy that really works, gamification seems to take top honors. In a 2012 survey of 400 HR and benefits professionals by Buck Consultants and World at Work, gamification was rated “the most effective” in “improving specific health and lifestyle behaviors.”* And 49 percent of respondents to Gartner Group research (cited in the same report from Buck) said that game-like techniques improved workforce health. Why? A well designed game is compelling, even riveting, and engaging. And games provide constant feedback, a real booster of engagement.

Mobile apps. About one-third of employers already use mobile in their healthcare benefits programs, usually for prescription notifications or benefits enrollment reminders. But less than 20 percent use mobile apps for their wellness programs. That will soon change at 63 percent reported in the Buck survey they would be adopting some type of mobile for their wellness programs in the next three years. Note: a survey of 151 attendees at the WorldatWork Total Rewards 2013 Conference and Exhibition showed that 65 percent were using some kind of mobile app to monitor their own health habits.

There are some technologies that don’t work as well, although on the surface they would appear to be great choices. One is workplace social media. Great for peer-to-peer acknowledgement and breaking down those inevitable workplace siloes, and driving performance, social media hasn’t really met its potential as a workplace wellness strategy. The gap is most apparent in weight-loss strategies.

A researcher at University of Missouri, Cheryl Shigaki, found that in-person social support was overwhelmingly preferred to creating new, online social networks based on common interests in wellness. And while technology solutions were great for streamlining data tracking—calories consumed or exercise—and getting visual feedback on progress, they didn’t beat face-to-face support. Her advice: Don’t develop your own social networking portal just to support your wellness program. Instead, use existing wellness apps and integrate them into social support.

Ready to add technology to your employee wellness program? Determine your goals, examine the options, and look at how those options fit within your organization’s existing programs and culture. If technology has a place in your employee wellness program, roll it out, promote it, and track the results. Given the results we found here, you and your employees will be glad you did.

*”How Technology is Shaping Wellness Programs.” Ruth Buck and Barry Hall. Buck Consultants. 2013.

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