Magazine article Workforce Management

The Weight Is Over

Magazine article Workforce Management

The Weight Is Over

Article excerpt

TO WIN AT EMPLOYEE WELLNESS PROGRAMS, COMPANIES ARE TURNING TO ONLINE FITNESS CHALLENGES AND FACEBOOK-STYLE SOCIAL NETWORKS TO BOOST WORKERS' OPTIONS, IMPROVE ENGAGEMENT AND CUT COSTS.

FOR YEARS, CHILTON HOSPITAL TRIED to get employees to take better care of themselves.

The northwest New Jersey hospital's human resources staff launched diabetes and other disease management initiatives to improve employee well-being and reduce health care costs. But the resulting behavior changes were minor, and the programs only covered a small number of employees.

That changed, though, when Chilton switched gears to a wellness program that asked employees to get social and competitive.

In March 2011, Chilton entered a countywide fitness challenge where employees vied in teams of six against other local businesses to see who could eat the healthiest, walk the most or drop the most weight. During the 100-day challenge, competitors logged onto a private, Facebook-like social network to share results and cheer each other on. To get employees to participate, the 256-bed hospital offered $150 to each member of the winning team and $500 to the employee who shed the most pounds. All told, 56 teams signed up, about 37 percent of the staff. In the end, though, it wasn't the money that drew the workers in. It was the online camaraderie, and the challenge. "People wanted to be on the winning team," says Julie McGovern, Chilton's vice president of administration and HR.

Experiences like Chilton's are playing out across the country as companies rebuild their employee wellness programs on Internet-based social networks that are equal parts health journal, fitness challenge and online support group.

Companies hope the programs will curb escalating costs for health care benefits. In 2008, the first year American Financial Group, or AFG, ran a social media-based walking program through vendor Walkingspree, the insurance company saved $9.27 in employee health care costs for every $1 spent on the program. The insurance company's health care premiums stayed flat that year because employees were healthier, according to a testimonial from AFG, which continues to use the program.

Aside from cutting costs, online-based wellness applications can help retain talent. The programs generally make employees feel better about themselves, and by extension, with the place they work, so they'll stick around longer.

"Employers are starting to recognize that incorporating elements of social media into a wellness program can boost participation and engagement and help create that buzz and culture around health and wellness that traditional engagement" methods aren't generating, says Kristie Howard, a vice president at Longfellow Benefits, a Boston-based benefits consultant.

BUOYED BY A CONFLUENCE OF TRENDS

Social wellness games represent a confluence of some of today's most significant online and workplace trends. One of the biggest is "gamification," or adding gamelike features to software and other business processes to make them more fun and engaging. Technology analyst Gartner Group predicts that by 2014, 70 percent of the 2,000 largest companies in the world will use at least one "gamified" enterprise software application.

With more companies using internal social networks such as Yammer and Socialtext to improve workforce collaboration, replace email or streamline other aspects of work, it's easing the way for workplaces to adopt Internet-based platforms for wellness games and challenges. When wellness tech vendor ShapeUp Inc. polled 351 U.S. corporate wellness executives this spring, 56 percent said that they were using some type of online competition or challenge, and another 40 percent were considering it. "It's a natural migration for wellness programs," says Shawn LaVana, ShapeUp's marketing vice president.

Like other tech innovations that started out as consumer products before migrating to the world of work, many social wellness services had their roots in the personal health care apps that appeared after the iPhone and other smartphones became commonplace. …

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