As a company building the next generation of digital health tools for employers, Rally needs to walk the walk when it comes to improving employee health — especially the health of our own employees.
Back in 2018, health engagement at Rally stood at 20% of employees, a decent number well within industry norms for non-incentivized employees. But knowing we could do better — perhaps a lot better — our benefits team launched into a months-long process to evaluate and rethink how we design and deliver our programs. The goal was to move beyond “checking boxes in benefits,” the practice of offering programs for the sake of having them, and actually drive sustainable engagement that leads to better health outcomes.
Happily, we can report that the team was able to more than triple our employee health engagement. During the first half of this year, 75% of our workforce has engaged with an earnable activity in our rewards program. In the same period, our employees have also earned approximately $115,000 in gift cards as rewards for taking steps to improve their health.
These are impressive numbers by industry standards. According to a RAND Corp. study, the median participation rate for workplace wellness programs is only 20% (that number jumps to 40 percent when incentives like Rally rewards are used.)
In this blog post, we’ll offer a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at how we achieved this outsize success so you can apply some of the key lessons at your company and begin to improve your employee engagement as well.
We’ve got HR challenges, just like you
We’re no different from many of our customers. We also face the challenges of keeping employees engaged and active in improving their health. What we learned in this process is that silos are your worst enemy. Well-being has to be an all-hands kind of deal. Leadership buy-in and creating a culture of health within the company are required for success.
Like your population, our employees are busy and focused on their day-to-day work. This can make awareness of, and engagement with, company-offered benefits difficult, even here.
We also have a workforce with health risks that mirror national trends. Some of our employees struggle to maintain a healthy weight and say that they find it hard to find time to focus on adopting better habits. Similar to many Americans, some are dealing with work stress and the challenge of taking care of young children or aging parents, or both. Some have a chronic illness such as heart disease and diabetes.
The good news is that most of our employees are happy to be at Rally, with more than 90 percent saying they “love” their job or feel “things are pretty good” at work. Some 60 percent felt like they had great social networks as well.
We’ve also been challenged by our incredible growth. Our staff has increased by more than 5 times since 2014. Many of our employees work remotely, and we now have multiple offices spread across the country. This all adds to the complexity of maintaining our culture, raising awareness of benefit programs, and keeping up engagement.
Focusing on well-being, not merely ‘benefits’
The first step in developing our new engagement strategy was to get clear about our well-being priorities. Our benefits team identified several key goals:
- Reduce employee health risks
- Promote a more productive workforce
- Offer competitive benefit and wellbeing programs to better attract and retain talent
- Cut our long-term health costs
With these overall objectives in mind, we then crafted a strategy that would:
- Include both onsite and virtual programs to offer maximum flexibility to our remote workers, as well as very busy onsite employees.
- Employ a data-driven approach that uses metrics to prioritize strategy and measure results.
- Leverage strategic collaborations with other teams at Rally, including those in product development, facilities, employee engagement and leadership groups, that can promote healthier activities in their function areas.
- Create alignment with our goals for promoting well-being, benefit programs, and internal utilization of the Rally platform, and continue assessing the mix of available benefits and programs.
Next, we conducted a comprehensive needs assessment to better understand what benefits our employees actually wanted and needed, as well as what solutions our leadership team considered important. As part of this effort, the benefits team created an inventory of programs that were available at all offices, and met with leadership to better understand their priorities and, crucially, to gain their buy-in for the new strategy. We also looked at claims data to see where our largest medical spend was, in order to prioritize programs.
Among the insights we discovered was one interesting finding: Many of our offices had proactive, passionate employees who were highly motivated to organize healthy activities or mini-programs (yoga, healthy eating, meditation, exercise groups, etc). These champions could play a critical role in our ultimate goal: creating a stronger culture of health at Rally, one that gives employees ownership over their well-being rather than being a top-down, benefits-driven workplace.
We also determined that hiring an onsite health promotions specialist would be integral to our success here. The main role of the onsite specialist would be to develop the well-being strategy and ensure its implementation. This person would work to get buy-in from leadership and develop strategic partnerships across the company and with affinity groups, partnering with our benefits team to integrate well-being engagements into onsite programs.
The strategic value of having a point person within the company structure to ensure alignment is critically important. A Harvard Business Review article (“What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?”) that laid out the essential pillars of a successful, strategically integrated wellness program reinforces this point.
“Every organization in our study has an expert who develops and coordinates a clear, comprehensive wellness program, continuously sells it throughout the organization, and measures its effectiveness,” wrote the authors. “The best wellness managers connect their expertise to the culture and strategy of the organization. These people are collaborative by nature, and analytical and credible by background and performance. It’s no ordinary management job.”
Rolling out the changes and making them stick
We started by developing a communications strategy to deploy messaging throughout the year. Each month featured a campaign designed to drive engagement in a particular program or activity.
We also established initiatives that expanded benefits outside of the typical set of offerings, including adding programs related to ergonomics, “green office” initiatives, lunch-and-learns, philanthropy, and employee-led activities.
We focused on bringing health closer to employees. Our onsite health promotions specialist planned and executed innovative in-office activities, such as onsite dental and vision services, creating team challenges, and building a network of wellness champions.
A big part of our team’s new strategy included prioritizing incentives to motivate employees to make healthier choices. Our employees have the opportunity to earn up to $200 in rewards by taking part in various wellbeing programs, such as training to run a 5K or joining a weight loss challenge. They can earn $50 by signing up to be a “WellChamp” and helping to create a more personalized well-being experience for their office or team.
We expanded the scope of our program mix and added initiatives to support mental and emotional health, career growth, financial wellness, and social connections. We also gave employees access to new offerings aimed at improving their physical health, including our Real Appeal weight-loss coaching program, a smoking cessation program, a maternity support program, and virtual visits via telemedicine, and we aren’t stopping…
Key takeaways and best practices
In the process of rethinking and rolling out our well-being strategy, we learned a lot of important lessons, including:
1. Make well-being a strategic imperative and approach employee well-being strategically and comprehensively: Leverage data often. Continuously evaluate the scope, relevance, and quality of programs. Strive for broader organizational alignment. Well-being programs need to make business sense, while being seamlessly integrated into the population and company environment.
2. Communicate clearly and often: Our digital and print communications reach 100% of employees because of high visibility around the office and through digital channels. For example, we post health messages in all bathrooms across the company to take advantage of a “captive audience.” In all of our communications, we strive to be transparent about our programs — what exactly are we offering and how does it benefit employees to participate?
We also leveraged employee success stories. We know that people are motivated by their colleagues who are losing weight or achieving other milestones.
Additionally, we developed a series of channels to promote the new health programs, including internal social networks, employee newsletters, email campaigns and in-office promotion (posters, fliers, digital signage, etc.).
3. Develop internal alliances: Our benefits team made a concerted effort to recruit champions from across the company. They created strategic partnerships with our women’s leadership network, our office culture committees, well-being champions network, diversity and inclusion teams, external vendors and senior leadership, among many others. These relationships helped our team spread the word and communicate that well-being is an all-company priority.
4. Listen to your employees: Whenever possible, we use data collected from surveys and medical claims to inform our priorities. This ensures that we’re listening closely to employee feedback and targeting specific program opportunities that will prove popular.
5. Focus on improving health IQ: More than just pushing benefit programs on employees, we want to show them how to take care of themselves and inspire a sense of ownership over their health. The idea is to create lasting habits, not just encourage employees to “sign up” for something.
6. Create social networks: We have over 15 online employee well-being communities covering a range of topics and interests (including but not limited to running clubs, smoothie enthusiasts, emotional well-being support groups, parental support groups, and more). These communities range from small groups of 10 employees to large groups of 200-plus employees.
Additionally, we have a large network of more than 120 well-being champions who are our most motivated and engaged employees. There’s nothing more convincing than an office buddy asking you to take part in a health challenge. That’s how you create a culture of health, one person at a time.
Beyond serving as our own case study, our effort here shows that it’s entirely possible to move the needle on health engagement in your company — potentially in a big way — despite what may seem like ingrained and insurmountable challenges.
Paul Ducharme is chief people officer for Rally Health, and doubles as the human capital leader for Optum’s Technology organization. He has 30+ years of experience, working with companies such as IBM, Cisco, and Google.