We know that employee health matters: Better health is tied to higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and roughly double the engagement of peers in poor health. But what not all benefits leaders may realize is that employees are actually hungry for help.
That was a key takeaway from the third Rally Health(SM) Innovation Summit, held in partnership with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. We brought together health plans, provider systems, employers, and outside behavior-change experts to discuss the “art of the possible” for consumer health engagement. This groundbreaking event tackled a lot of critical issues, starting with how to get better buy-in.
Nearly two-thirds say that managing their health is a top priority, and more than half hope their employers will actively encourage their healthy lifestyles, according to Willis Towers Watson data presented at the Innovation Summit.
Why the disconnect between what employees say they want and their reluctant participation in those wellbeing initiatives? Blame emotions, said Ichiro Kawachi, PhD, chairman of the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, who presented at the Innovation Summit.
“We associate behavior with reasoning and rational thought, but part of our brain that’s involved in the decision-making process operates subconsciously and is influenced by emotions.” And getting that part of the brain on board can be the difference between enthusiastic buy-in and begrudging enrollment.
As people from all parts of the health care ecosystem shared ideas and strategies, they agreed that the first step was believing that better buy-in is achievable. “Think about how your employees encounter the wellness program. Do they have an experience they want to brag about on Glassdoor?” said Michael Perlmutter, senior consultant and health imagination leader at Willis Tower Watson. If not, it might be time to make some tweaks.
1. Give Individualized Choices, Not Commandments
Many employer programs start with a health assessment and then tell employees the most pressing behavior they needed to change. But modern programs give targeted options, not a single imperative. “They encourage employees to engage with the programs that matter the most to them,” said Pamela Rich, senior manager of workforce well-being at the National Business Group on Health. “And that greater choice makes employees feel like their employer is giving them the ability to improve their lives.”
At Rally®, for instance, our new Progression feature allows every user to focus on the specific goals that are most important to them, and to easily set up a program that reflects those goals. Our recommendation engine serves up the most relevant Missions for their goals, and allows users to track their progress.
Giving people that kind of choice and personalized guidance creates a sense of empowerment — and breeds better engagement. Dictating an employee’s wellness journey, on the other hand, can create resentment.
“If you tell someone they have to stop smoking, and for whatever reason they’re not ready to quit, you might miss the chance to help them with their stress or their sleep or their eating habits,” said Brian Dolan, chief strategy and partner integration officer at Rally Health. But if they can choose to opt in to a stress-reduction goal, they might gain confidence in their ability to improve their health, and that positive momentum could help them pick smoking cessation in the future.
2. Make it Emotional
If we were robots, maintaining healthy habits would be as easy as a daily checklist. But humans are a lot more messy, “and behavior is much more complex and irrational than we’ve thought in the past,” says Kawachi. Rather than appealing purely to the employee’s rational side, wellness programs must use a mix of emotional tools: novelty, competition, games, feel-good philanthropy.
In a six-month study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, people who had their pedometers tied into a team game boosted their daily walking distance by nearly one mile over those who were simply encouraged to track their steps. The collaboration, small prizes, and moments of victory did more to get participants up and moving than dry stats about heart health and exercise. At Rally, we're big fans of this approach. Our Challenges feature actively encourages people to move more by creating fun virtual walks where they can track their steps and earn Rally Coins, which can be exchanged for discounts on movie tickets, fitness gear, and more.
3. Create a Culture of Wellness
Health programs can’t thrive in a bubble. “It’s about culture,” said Matt Shaffer, SVP, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. “And people who feel that their employer takes care of them are in a curated culture. Those employers don’t just push communications from a third party with no integration and hope that it resonates.”
Indeed, research shows that when on-site services are available, whether that’s a wellness coordinator, fitness facility, yoga room, or health coach, “satisfaction in an employer wellness program dramatically increases,” says Perlmutter. But cultivating a culture of wellness doesn’t have to mean big-ticket initiatives like building a gym, of course. Employers can host health fairs, sponsor employee bike rides, create private social media groups around healthy activities, or swap out the usual chips-and-soda vending machines for more healthy snacks in the break room. We’ve put together some great tips for doing a health fair that can help you get inspired.
One crucial culture element that benefits leaders can’t afford to overlook? Management buy-in. Because while C-suite executives may be the ones to greenlight a program, it’s the managers who can be most influential in actually engaging employees. So, in addition to getting your CEO on board (see here for tips on how to do that), talk to department heads about how they can share initiative news and inspire the troops. As Perlmutter says, “Improving the employee’s wellness experience really happens at that person-to-person level.”