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Workplace wellness goes high tech

By Kelly Craig on March, 17 2016
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Kelly Craig

While past generations counted their job benefits in terms of dollars earned, today’s workers are measuring it by inches lost or levels of stress shed. 

As healthy lifestyles become a preferred job perk, new technologies are helping companies deliver highly customized—and highly effective—wellness programs.

The workplace wellness trend has been gathering speed over the past decade, with HR professionals recognizing that the health of the workforce health is directly related to the health of the business overall. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) “2015 Employee Benefits” research report found that the number of US employers offering a general wellness program increased from 58 percent in 2008—the first year SHRM conducted the survey—to 70 percent of U.S. employers in 2015.

Measured in dollars, workplace wellness is a sound business investment. A 2014 RAND study calculated that the overall ROI on workplace wellness programs is $1.50 for every $1.00 spent, while other studies suggest the returns are as high as $6.00.

But workplace wellness can deliver even greater returns in the form of employee retention and morale. Employees are increasingly prioritizing wellness incentives and looking to their employers to help them achieve a healthier, more balanced life.

A UK study by international healthcare group Bupa showed that 85 percent of employees feel their employer has a responsibility to look after their health and wellbeing, and a TechnologyAdvice survey found that a gym membership or reimbursement was the second most desirable workplace perk.

The good news is that new technologies such as interactive health apps and wearables are making it easier than ever to deliver personalized, measurably effective wellness programs.



Wearable fitness devices such as Fitbit, the Apple Watch, Jawbone, and Misfit are all being used in corporate settings to help employees challenge themselves to lead healthier lives.

These devices support a highly personalized approach to health because employees can input key information such as their activity levels, sleep habits, and nutrition patterns and use that data to create a health plan that fits their needs and goals.

There are significant benefits for the organization, too: being able to see their employees’ progress helps them measure the performance of their wellness programs and fine tune them to improve results over time.

Why this technology works: To be effective, a wellness program can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Making lifestyle changes is hard enough for employees: if they have to navigate reams of generic information to figure out what’s relevant to them, they’ll drop out of the program.

Wearable technologies put each employee at the center of a highly personalized health engagement where everything can be minutely tailored to their interests, preferences, and health metrics.


Habit makers

Platforms such as LifeDoJo and VirginPulse take a slightly different approach to health by focusing on encouraging the little steps that change employee behaviors over time. LifeDojo takes a holistic approach to wellness by incorporating financial skills, resilience, and stress management in addition to fitness, diet, and sleep.

The 12-week program can be customized to fit each employee’s needs, and in addition to a mobile app that delivers weekly goals and encouragement to keep employees on track, the technology also ensures employees can connect to a coach 24/7.

VirginPulse has the added benefit of integrating with most wearable fitness devices so that people can use the data to inform their daily routine.

Why this technology works: A number of studies on habit formation suggest that making small but consistent changes over time can yield big—yet sustainable—results. Instead of trying to get people to commit to big, scary changes, these habit-making apps gently nudge people to make small, manageable decisions day by day.

When people are consistently encouraged to make small changes over a longer period of time (a University College London study found that 66 days was the minimum required), they are more likely to see significant and lasting results.



Sonic Boom also focuses on instilling healthier daily habits in employees’ lives, but it uses gamification to motivate people to reach and sustain their wellness goals. Self-described as “the only pure-play health optimization” company, Sonic Boom uses game elements such as levels, badges, rewards, and daily challenges to encourage healthier behaviors.

HealthyWage is another gamified wellness program that uses competitions with cash prizes to motivate employees to shed excess weight or achieve specific fitness goals. However,

Why this technology works: The mechanics of gamification are simple but effective, which is why it’s being used to encourage people to do a number of things they’d rather not do, including recycle, do chores, and even drive within the speed limit.

A recent literature review on the gamification phenomenon concluded that it is effective as an engagement and motivational tool. Using positive reinforcement, instant feedback, and a series of clear milestones leading to a specific goal, gamification creates an addictive sense of excitement that helps to make challenging or unpleasant tasks easier to complete.

While wellness programs play a critical role in employee retention, productivity, and engagement, they are often resource-intensive and hampered by low participation rates. Technologies that help companies support personalized, habit-forming, and engaging wellness plans can help to reduce costs while maximizing impact.


New approaches, new competencies

As technology takes center stage in a growing number of organizational wellness initiatives, it’s a good time to revisit the competencies required for the key roles involved. While this is most often someone in HR, it may also involve wellness committee members, outside consultants, and individuals at the leadership level.

Integrating a new approach to wellness requires an openness to different ideas, a willingness to question assumptions, and an ability to generate enthusiasm for untried and unfamiliar experiences.

Two competencies from HRSG’s leadership competency dictionary can help prepare those involved in corporate wellness to develop these critical dimensions: “Creativity and Innovation” and “Leading Change.”

For more information about leadership competencies, download the free ebook, “Leadership Redefined: A Competency-Based Guide to Transformational Leadership.”