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Brain Training Is Becoming the New Push in Employee Wellness

Not only is employee well-being an essential component of overall wellness efforts, researchers say a healthy brain is crucial to employee engagement.

June 15, 2012

While many wellness programs zero in on healthy eating and exercise programs, employers are beginning to recognize the importance of brain health and how it relates to employee engagement.

Aetna Health launched MyBrainSolutions this spring, a program that provides online assessments and interactive games employees can access to improve upon four key areas of brain performance: emotion, thinking, feeling and self-regulation.

"We're intrigued with the notion of looking at the brain as any other muscle or organ in the body," says Louise Murphy, head of Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna Behavioral Health. "The idea is to exercise the brain and improve it by using compelling games and tasks, and it aligns with our goal of helping members enhance their well-being and become the best they can from a health perspective."

Murphy says the program is specifically designed for employers looking to improve productivity and the health and well being of their workforce. Developed by Brain Resources Inc. in San Francisco, MyBrainSolutions provides a Web-based brain assessment tool that identifies an individual's brain profile and recommends training games, exercises and videos to help optimize brain health, reduce stress and increase productivity.

"The word that comes to mind is 'engagement'—that notion that you can put wellness options in front of your employees, but if they are not emotionally engaged, it will be relatively ineffective," she says. "We believe this is the frontier of an exciting future about understanding how the brain works and how it impacts wellness."

There is "good science" behind the concept of focusing on particular brain functions, such as short-term memory or emotional recognition to improve function, says Dr. Harry Kerasidis, director of the Center for Neuroscience in Prince Frederick, Maryland. One example is children with attention deficit disorder who are unable to pick up on visual cues. With practice, they can learn to quickly recognize anger, happiness or other emotions and react appropriately.

"We start with a brain assessment that shows the individual's strengths and weaknesses," Kerasidis says. "Then we can develop a program of brain exercises to precisely target their needs, such as problem-solving skills, emotional problems, and memory."

In one study, conducted by Brain Resource with a large insurer, participants who spent 30 days on the interactive site showed better productivity and less absenteeism, plus improvement in positive thinking, stress management and social skills. Changes tend to be permanent if people stay with the program for at least 60 days, Brain Resource CEO Gregory Bayer says.

The Total Rewards and Employee Well-Being survey from October 2011 by WorldatWork found that 54 percent of employers who responded have a well-being program in addition to a wellness program. Top reasons cited for implementing the well-being component include improved employee health (85 percent), perceived value to employees (79 percent), decreased medical premiums (77 percent), increased productivity (73 percent) and increased employee engagement (72 percent).

Respondents said their well-being programs focus on physical fitness, stress reduction, work-life balance and financial education.

"Wellness programs are traditionally offered through a medical plan, but are just one piece of the puzzle," says Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader for the Scottsdale, Arizona-based organization. "You need to get employees to the stage of action. However, to get them there, you need to take a holistic approach. If they are not emotionally fit, they won't be able to make changes."

"Encouraging people to focus on the mind-body connection to achieve overall peak performance is cutting-edge science," says Bayer of Brain Resource. "A lot of the focus is on prevention and early intervention."

Bayer says that what is missing in many employee assistance programs is a component that encourages employees to think about caring for their brain and understanding the mind-body connection.

"People who train with our tools are more ready to engage in other activities related to health," he says. "We see a 20 to 35 percent rate of engagement in wellness programs when brain training is added."

Stanley believes organizations with strategic well-being programs that enhance emotional health have a better chance of affecting the types of employee medical issues that result in higher costs.

"However, everyone has to start somewhere, so if you just have a wellness program to begin with, that's a good start," she says.

Lisa Beyer is a writer based in Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.