As technological tools continue to influence the mainstream consumer’s daily life, employers are taking advantage of this trend and finding new ways to address employee health. These tools better allow employers to measure performance, encourage participation and create a sense of community, but simply buying the entire office a FitBit isn’t enough to build long-term engagement. While employers can certainly leverage the benefits of these platforms, it takes more to get the most out of a wellness program.

During the early days of wellness programs, fewer technological tools were available. Employers instead relied on education-based wellness programs, but a mental information download isn’t enough to sustain engagement either, says Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader of personal development for WorldatWork.

“We are social creatures, so when there’s an opportunity to interact with peers or take part in something creates that engagement, it can be an effective tool,” Sanicola says. “Information and education, unfortunately, aren’t enough to motivate people, but technology provides an opportunity for individuals to play a more active role in their health.”

Also see: Wearable wellness: Just a fad or the future of wellness?

Along with offering a social environment, wellness technological tools are effective at engagement because they provide instant feedback, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of well-being and productivity at National Business Group on Health. With a quick tap on the wrist or glance at a smartphone, employees can monitor goals and compare past performances — all in real time. Many of these tools also proactively send alerts when users reach certain goals, which helps keep wellness top of mind.

“Daily feedback is absolutely key,” Heinen says. “With some of these devices, you can also get weekly reports. This is helpful because you can look at trend lines, which gives deeper insight. The information is easily digestible and simple to use.”

Besides offering an engagement advantage, these technological tools can help employers better track participation, Sanciola says. Many critics have cited the lack of return on investment in wellness programs as a glaring drawback, but technological tools are more data driven. While truly tracking ROI can take years, these tools at least give employers a snapshot of what’s working from a participation standpoint. From there, employers can adjust the programs for better engagement, and it gives them a better look at the program’s true value. 

“We’re seeing more effective platforms that collect aggregate data and target programs based upon that information,” Sanicola says. “This allows us to now customize and personalize wellness programs based upon the information we get from our work force. We’ll really see more of that in mobile apps.”

Also see: 5 reasons wearable wellness is here to stay

Of course, given that these tools draw from personal health analytics, some employees may not want to share this information. As such, employers should be aware of potential privacy violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Affordable Care Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, Sanicola says. To avoid any issues, employees should consent to sharing this information with their employers, and programs should be designed with an all-inclusive approach. For instance, if an employer marks off dollars of medical coverage for joining in a workout program, it must also offer a reasonable alternative to those who can’t physically participate.

Wellness programs require more than a one-size-fits-all approach, and creating a customized offering starts with understanding the employee base, says Jill Havely, head of communication consulting at Towers Watson. Every company is different with its own unique employee demographics, and what might be effective for one employee group may not be for another. Employers need to look at their employees’ perspectives, behaviors and opinions to see what they value and how they’re motivated. Some employee groups may respond well to a step contest while others may be interested in a more competitive program, complete with exercise and food tracking, weigh-ins and measurements.

Also see: Cost, security concerns may slow Apple Watch’s role in workplace wellness

“A singular program for everybody doesn’t work, and employers are seeing it doesn’t yield results or get the participation they expected,” Havely says. “It’s a critical component because appealing to their needs is what gets people’s attention.”

To better understand employee demographics, Havely recommends looking at it in the same way as consumer marketing. Just like the average consumer, employees respond to marketing that is carefully targeted to their needs, and certain barriers must be overcome to encourage participation.

“A consumer marketing department first does a deep market analysis to really understand the buyers — what their preferences are, what their attitudes are, how to price something,” Havely says. “Organizations need to take that same level of depth and understanding of their employee audience if they’re to have higher opportunities for success in driving wellness behaviors, whether that’s physical health or financial wellness.”

 

Create the right message

For long-term success with a wellness program, health must be ingrained into the corporate culture, and technological tools are great for creating a social community among peers, Sanicola says. As employees support and challenge each other, they create relationships that serve as the foundation of a health-focused environment, and this goes a long way in jumpstarting wellness programs as it becomes part of everyday life.

“Having the support of fellow employees is absolutely important,” Sanicola says. “You connect with people who are in similar situations, and you’re motivating each other through all of the challenges. It also gives people the opportunity to get to know other people in different communities within the organization.”

Also see: The reality behind wearable wellness

But it’s not enough for only the employees to be engaged. Senior-level executives and managers need to embrace wellness in the workplace as well, Heinen says. When management takes an interest in organizational wellness, it adds a sense of credibility that health is important for the company’s overall success, and employees can actively contribute. Beyond reducing health-risk factors, better wellness helps employees feel more alert, improve their sleep patterns and manage their stress levels, which all lead to increased performance. Driving that behavior also creates a social norm in the workplace.   

“It’s about the belief that good health is good business,” Heinen says. “Employees need to see that when they take care of their own well-being, they’re helping their department, and that helps the overall company. When that permeates and all lines up, it’s really powerful.”

Some wellness programs incorporate physical activity, such as walking breaks or meetings, into daily corporate life, but employees may be hesitant to participate if they’re worried it could make a bad impression with management, Heinen says. Employees are looking for signals to let them know that taking those walking breaks won’t impact how they’re viewed, and if they see senior management also participating, they’re more likely to follow suit.

Managers can even take an active role in social media platforms to help build a foundation of wellness, says Seth Serxner, chief health officer of Optum. With the many tools available, managers can personally communicate wellness tips, program updates or words of encouragement to employees. This approach shows that management is truly committed to the cause and creates a greater social connection.

Also see: Considering new benefits technology to boost the employee experience

“A CEO could utilize a blog about her personal health journey, such as sharing her weekly step goal with employees,” Serxner says. “Employees may also participate in social networking activities with other employees and, through these shared experiences, help build culture.”

When management embraces wellness, it can also increase the frequency of communication, which is a huge challenge for these programs, Heinen says. Human resources departments often deliver messaging around wellness, but many employers, especially large ones, restrict the frequency of company-wide communication. However, line managers can drive wellness messaging home as often as they would like with daily emails, social media postings and face-to-face communication.

“There can be corporate communication policies that work against the most effective communications around employee well-being,” Heinen says. “If you work in a corporation with one email system and 30,000 employees, you have to patrol those channels, but at the same time, if the communication is mandated that you can only email once a month where everything has to be rolled up into one long email, it makes getting the message across much more challenging.”

Also see: Social media, new technology drive healthy behaviors

Considering that employees rely on many electronic communication avenues, Sanicola suggests casting a multiple-platform approach. Employers can send more targeted messages based on the employee demographics they’re trying to hit. For instance, if the younger population tends to respond to gamification and prefers text communication, employers can send specific reminders or updates about those programs to that demographic. 

“Technology is scalable and cost effective, so you can reach large masses at people at once,” Sanicola says. “If there are certain groups of employees you want to share a targeted message with, the various technological avenues give you the ability to slice and dice your communication. Personalized works better than one message that applies to everyone.”

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