HR Technology: Help Employees Get Healthy

Technology can be a boon to employers’ wellness initiatives.

By Dave Zielinski Jul 1, 2013
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When Ron Welchel, director of human resources at The Jackson Cos., took a hard look at his employee wellness program, he saw a solid foundation in place but room for improvement. Welchel wanted to add structure and personalization to an initiative that already included a wellness committee, health risk appraisals, exercise events and more.

He turned to an interactive wellness portal from Automatic Data Processing Inc. The portal, called ADP Vitality Wellness, features results from employees' biometric screenings, educational resources, personalized wellness plans with recommended goals and activities, and incentives that can lower employees' health care premiums.

The portal meets the diverse needs of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., employer's 225 workers. "Health and educational needs obviously differ for someone who has diabetes versus those who might be dealing with high blood pressure," Welchel explains. "The system is set up to develop custom solutions and health goals."

A health-risk appraisal tool and an associated risk-adjusted measure called Vitality Age anchor the portal. The latter calculates employees' "physical ages" based on current health measures and behaviors. "That's been an eye-opener," Welchel says. Often, an individual's physical age doesn't match his or her chronological years. Tracking functions on the portal monitor employees' progress against wellness goals suggested by the health appraisals, with points awarded for positive behaviors that accumulate at bronze-, silver- or gold-status levels. Each level has varying rewards.

Employees can earn points in ways such as participating in employer-sponsored walks, using educational content on the portal, undergoing skin cancer screenings or engaging in physical fitness activities that meet certain criteria. Beginning in 2014, employees who earn a certain level of points will be eligible for discounts on their health care premiums, Welchel explains.

He pays $3 per employee per month for the platform, with additional fees for services such as onsite biometric screenings. Adoption of the portal was surprisingly swift for a company where most employees work outdoors on campgrounds or golf courses and don't have their own computer workstations. Employees without computers or tablets log on to desktop computers in the HR department or use managers' PCs. Eighty-five percent of employees used the portal in a recent three-month period.

"Many of our people are logging on to the portal before work, during breaks or after work," Welchel says. "It's a cultural change for us and a shift in accountability for employees to take more control of their health."

New Wellness Technologies

Many executives are exploring how portals, mobile devices, social networks and online games engage workers. The goal: Empowering employees with the tools to build healthier habits or manage chronic conditions so untreated ailments don't become costly illnesses.

For the 2012 survey report Emerging Technology in Health Engagement, which reflects data from 360 large companies, WorldatWork and Buck Consultants researchers studied three technologies employers commonly use to promote wellness:

Games. Used by 62 percent of respondents, games ranked highest in perceived effectiveness.

Social networking. Half of those surveyed use social networking, but respondents ranked this approach highest when rating concerns about protecting privacy of personal information.

Mobile technologies. Although mobile technologies were used least frequently—in effect at 36 percent of respondents' organizations—they ranked first as a future priority.

All three technologies offer employees convenience, personalization features and motivational elements.

For example, some wireless applications allow users to track workouts and improve fitness or health levels. At Clark Metal Products Inc., a 118-employee manufacturing company in Blairsville, Pa., "button trackers" from Philadelphia-based vendor GlobalFit have become integral to an expanded wellness initiative, says Ellen Starry, director of human resources. Employees simply clip the trackers to their shoes and start recording steps. When they walk past designated access points in the plant, data wirelessly uploads to employees' personal home pages so workers can monitor their walking activity.

"About 80 percent of our employees work on the manufacturing shop floor, so we needed a way to easily track and monitor the steps taken there," says Rob Clark, the company's president. "We found people to be immediately engaged by the program. Some can't wait for their shifts to be over so they can go home, log on to their landing pages and see how many steps they've recorded."

Starry wondered if Clark Metal employees would embrace the step trackers but says the reception has been positive. "We had 68 percent of employees enroll in the program last year and about the same number this year."

The trackers cost $40 each, a fee the company covers if employees walk a minimum number of steps per year; otherwise, the cost is deducted from workers' paychecks. Clark Metal also pays a $2.50 monthly maintenance fee per employee to use GlobalFit's Destination: You walking program.

To encourage participation, the company creates annual challenges, monthly mini-challenges and "stretch goals." From April to November, for example, there is a 1.5-million-step challenge and a 2.5-million-step stretch goal, with achievement in each category triggering points and associated rewards. Employees who achieve the stretch goal will be entered into a drawing for a three-night, all-expenses-paid tropical vacation for two.

"This also is the first year employees can earn a discount on their health care premiums based on their walking and wellness results," Starry says. Employees with single coverage who reach the maximum number of plan points in 2013 will pay nothing for health insurance.

Last year, 61 of 67 participants each achieved 1 million steps by year's end, Starry says, with 30 employees reaching 2 million steps.

The walking program is part of a broader wellness initiative called Personal Attention to Total Health. Employees earn points for activities such as undergoing biometric screenings and attending educational lunch-and-learn sessions on topics like chronic disease management, stress reduction and tobacco cessation.

"We are in this for the long haul, and we expect the wellness program to translate to the bottom line," Clark says.

Managing Employees' Chronic Conditions

For some business leaders, a desire to help employees manage chronic conditions drives investment in wellness technologies. This was the case at Acosta Sales & Marketing, a 33,000-employee company in Jacksonville, Fla. Peter Kneedler, vice president of compensation and benefits, opted to pilot a wireless glucose meter from Boston-based Healthrageous to help employees who are pre-diabetic or have Type 2 diabetes. The meter measures blood glucose data that employees upload to a Web platform.

The platform includes personalized action plans with health-behavior improvement goals, biometric feedback to demonstrate goal achievement, digital coaching via e-mail or text, recognition and incentives for progress, and medication reminders.

"Diabetes is a significant problem and a trigger for other health issues, so we wanted to make those who are pre-diabetic or already diabetic a focus of our wellness program and health plan design," Kneedler says.

When Acosta's employees upload new blood glucose data or other information to the platform, built-in algorithms act as a digital coach, responding with reminders, inspirational words, recognition, challenges or educational messages.

Kneedler says the ability to keep blood glucose levels top of mind for employees is one of the platform's chief benefits. "The glucometer and Web platform enable us to push out timely messages to employees based on whether their blood sugar levels are spiking or if they're managing those levels well," he says. "It gives our people instant feedback on behaviors that lead to particular health results."

If an employee reports in an online health questionnaire that he or she averages only four or five hours of sleep per night, for example, an automatic message might review how lack of sufficient sleep can affect glucose levels.

Cash rewards and prize drawings encourage employees to participate or complete the program, with a premium for sustained participation. Those who upload their glucose results to the platform five out of seven days, for example, might be placed in a drawing for a free iPad.

Initial results from the program have been promising, Kneedler says. Among participating Acosta employees in the high-risk blood glucose category, 83 percent showed a drop of at least 10 glucose points during the measurement period, he says.

Value of Structure

Some HR professionals see wellness technologies as adding structure to loosely organized health engagement activities. Wellness portals, for example, can bring together dispersed employee populations and renew focus on improving health.

At Kone Corp., a manufacturer of elevators and escalators, an internal website called Elevate Your Health consolidates employees' wellness activities and health data, says Elizabeth Scott, a company benefits specialist based in Lisle, Ill. Kone uses Interactive Health of Schaumburg, Ill., to conduct biometric screenings and the University of Michigan to compile and securely transmit data from those screenings to the wellness site.

Using a single sign-on to access and navigate the site, Kone employees view the results from their health screenings to evaluate their progress and plan appropriate actions.

"Having a dedicated internal website puts a formal structure to the whole wellness process and creates a one-stop shop for employees to improve their personal health," Scott says. "If we didn't have the site and what it offers, people might just get their results after health screenings and file them away without much further thought."

Employees use the site to monitor the number of steps taken, track weight loss, join group exercises and take other actions based on personalized recommendations.

Incentives help drive participation. Employees are entered into drawings for a paid vacation day when they complete health screenings and take other health-related actions; sustained actions can pay off in $1,000 shopping sprees, an all-expenses-paid luxury vacation for two and free health care premiums.

Employees are encouraged to share personal health stories on the site. One employee wrote about discovering she had cancer following a wellness screening and the steps she is taking to treat it.

Competition among Kone's four U.S. regions adds motivation. The results of each region's progress against wellness goals are posted on the site monthly. "Employees log on to check their region's progress and often encourage others in their locations or regions to upload their step data or complete biometric screenings" if their region falls behind, Scott says.

While the jury may still be out on the bottom-line benefits of wellness efforts, adoption of next-generation technologies and incentive systems appears primed to make improving employees' health a more user-friendly, engaging and attainable goal.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

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