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Wellness Hits the Social Networks

April 12, 2010
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By 2007, officials in San Antonio-based Bexar County were facing a scenario only too familiar to employers. Medical costs were climbing and claims data revealed discouraging rates of high blood pressure and other health-risk factors among the county’s workforce of nearly 5,000 employees. “Our obesity rates were through the roof,” says Michelle Stewart, employee clinic and wellness coordinator.

County officials wanted to step up their employees’ activity. So they decided to tap the viral and competitive possibilities of social media.

Through an online venue, developed by Virgin HealthMiles, employees began to upload the steps they had accrued on their pedometers, whether by walking, dancing or some other fitness effort. Just as important, they started networking online, sending messages, creating team competitions and brainstorming ways to cram a little more physical fitness into an already overbooked day.

To raise the stakes, officials also have organized periodic countywide challenges, awarding cash prizes to teams that clock the most steps. That’s when the message traffic slips into hyper-drive, Stewart says.

“It really blows up during our challenges because we are competing against our own colleagues and there are also monetary prizes,” she says. “So you’ll see the chats going on fire.”

Relatively speaking, wellness-related social networks are still in their infancy, at least from the employer’s perspective. Just 7 percent of companies that Towers Perrin defines as high performing, with relatively low medical costs, currently use social networks to improve employee health, according to the consulting firm’s 2010 Health Care Cost Survey. (The firm has since merged with Watson Wyatt Worldwide to form Towers Watson.) But an additional 26 percent of high-performing companies plan to add the tool by 2012, the survey found.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of interest and not as many programs as you might think, given the level of interest,” says Kathryn Yates, the global practice leader of communication and change management practice for Towers Watson. “People just aren’t sure how to do it. I think we will be driven in this direction as the demographics in the workforce change. These tools will be much more commonly used.”

Competition vs. coercion
Virgin HealthMiles, which is offered through various employers and insurance providers, currently works with more than 120 clients, reaching more than 500,000 U.S. employees, according to a company spokeswoman. Insurance companies also are getting into the mix. In fall 2009, Aetna introduced its own social networking platform through Shape Up the Nation.

Aetna employees had already been using a more scaled-down internal version in recent years—57 percent participated in 2009—and employers were expressing interest, says Karen Weinseiss, who leads innovation, program development and management for Aetna. By 2009, 20,340 Aetna employees had registered on the internal company site, completing 1.1 million hours of exercise.

Social media is a natural tool to help Facebook-savvy employees stay on top of their fitness and nutrition goals, Weinseiss says. “A lot of people today telework—there are multiple locations. People are on very compressed time schedules. And they are trying to squeeze more and more into their days.”

Through the new Aetna product, via Shape up the Nation, employees can search for co-workers with similar interests, whether that may be pilates or a regular golf game. They also can create teams built around a specific goal, such as walking daily or training for a marathon.

Individuals control their privacy settings and can participate to whatever degree they prefer. Weinseiss, who has joined a fitness competition with some co-workers, recently signed on and noticed that she “was lagging behind,” and vowed to dial up her activity. “I think that whole competition element is a big one to motivate people,” she says.

These emerging social media networks help to foster camaraderie and accountability, both key to changing behavior, says David Atkinson, vice president of corporate wellness for Cooper Corporate Solutions, a consulting arm of Dallas-based Cooper Aerobics. The technologies offer the ability to network with individuals who are in the same situation as you are, he says.

There’s also an element of anonymity, Atkinson says. It might be easier, for example, to join a weight-loss group with members scattered across a large company rather than sitting down and sharing around a table together.

Still, there’s a risk that the competitive element—particularly in an uber-competitive company—can backfire, he says. Employers should set a positive tone, emphasize that getting involved is entirely voluntary and not “over-incentivize,” as Atkinson puts it. “Certainly we want people to change behaviors,” he says. “But we don’t want to create an environment where team pressure becomes a component of coercion.”

Stepping it up
Theresa Barrientos, a 33-year-old accountant, had just started walking to lose weight a couple of months before her Bexar County employer introduced the Virgin HealthMiles site. The first time she took a 15-minute walk, “I nearly died,” she jokes. “I was huffing and puffing and I thought, ‘I’m going to have a heart attack.’ ”

But she credits the social networking aspect, along with her trusty pedometer, with keeping her in gear. Now she regularly walks 7,000 steps a day and, on some days, she reaches 12,000 steps. By January of 2010, 43.4 percent of Bexar County employers were enrolled in the program, compared with 32.8 percent in January of 2009.

Several times a year, interested employees are randomly assigned to teams during countywide challenges. (The county’s employers are scattered across approximately 20 offices in and around San Antonio.) Last November, nearly 400 employees participated in the Thanksgiving challenge, averaging nearly 11,000 daily steps from November 10-30. The winning team members, who averaged 22,561 daily steps, won $70 each.

Later this year, county officials will take a look at the agency’s medical claims data to get a sense of whether the increased activity has yet reaped any health benefits, Stewart says. The agency also has taken some other steps to reduce costs, such as opening an employee health clinic last year to reduce unnecessary emergency department usage.

Barrientos, already 76 pounds lighter, has no doubt that the virtual support system has helped. She feels more energetic and is eating healthier food. And she hasn’t reached the finish line. Her bottom-line goal: to lose 50 more pounds.

Workforce Management Online, April 2010 -- Register Now!

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