Dr. Keith Kantor, CEO of nutrition consultancy Service Foods, had an enviable problem: his workers were too healthy. The 100-or-so employees of the Norcross, GA-based company were a wellness-minded bunch to begin with, and the programs Kantor put in place -- "lunch and learn" sessions about eating healthy and Biggest Loser-style contests -- pulled in as much as 70 percent of the staff. Most employers would consider this a success, and Kantor figured he had hit the ceiling of wellness engagement among his workforce.
Then the zombies arrived.
Mike Tinney, CEO of Fitness Interactive eXperience (FIX), a gaming and fitness company, approached Kantor about beta testing a new program developed by his company. It took a typical pedometer challenge, gave it a team-based, social media-oriented twist, and added in a pack of hungry zombies to gamify the whole thing, letting it unfold in "chapters" that made participants more likely to check back in -- and exercise more.
The program, called "A Step Ahead: Zombies," lasted five weeks, allowing workers to sync into the game using the wearable fitness device of their choice -- Fitbit, Garmin Vivofit, or a number of others. It seemed like a fun idea, so Kantor gave it a shot, expecting the usual 70-percent-or-so level of participation. But for the first time, he saw interest jump even higher.
"It increased engagement by 25 percent," says Kantor. "I thought I was doing pretty well, getting 70-odd percent engagement, but it turns out even more people are interested in running away from a zombie than listening to a dietician explain the dangers of celiac disease."
Fear of becoming a zombie by slacking on their steps -- and the razzing they would get from their teammates -- proved to be a powerful motivator for workers (not to mention the $250 in gift cards and merchandise the company awards monthly to the healthiest performers). While Service Foods had been enjoying a 4:1 return on its investment, the introduction of "A Step Ahead" jumped this to 6:1 for value redeemed on every dollar spent, Kantor says. This January, the company earned second place at Atlanta's Healthiest Employers awards.
The success of this program points to the ongoing innovations happening in the workplace wellness arena, particularly the incorporation of wearable devices and the apps associated with them. But it also shows how, as these programs and technology evolve, they are attracting participants who may have previously kept their distance from the company's health program. Whether it's the allure of a cool new Fitbit device or fear of a zombie, wellness technology is making exercise more attractive than ever.
Meeting People Where They're At
Consumer interest in wearable fitness trackers continues to climb. According to the digital agency Acquity Group, 22 percent of consumers currently own or expect to purchase an activity monitor, and this is poised to double by 2019. A recent report from Cornerstone OnDemand paints an even rosier picture. Its survey of 2,000 workers found that eight out of 10 full-time employees say they would be motivated to use company-provided wearable wellness devices, while 72 percent expect that wearable tech will eventually become a standard workplace offering.
Helping drive this demand is that the last year has seen a number of new activity monitors coming on the market or enhancements to existing ones. Since late last year, new versions of Fitbit, Jawbone, Basis Peak, and other trackers were released, offering integration with newly enhanced mobile apps. In January, the PPAI Expo and Consumer Electronics Show were both abuzz with talk of new wearable models and capabilities.
And of course, this April, Apple Watch will be appearing on wrists everywhere, promising wearers a complete view of their physical activity throughout each day. It will follow day-to-day activity as well as offer a separate workout app for more strenuous cardio routines.
"There's this explosion of not only fitness devices but fitness apps," says Jennifer Patel, Hallmark Business Connection's (HBC) wellness engagement segment director. "It's eliminated some of the barriers for customers who don't have a lot to invest in the beginning -- there's a lot more choice, a lot more features and functionality, and the price point has come down."
This has made it easier to get workers on board with a corporate wellness program, since many own a device already, or can find a device that works for them among the growing options available. But for incentive companies like HBC, it has also meant moving quickly to integrate these expanding options. The company's Wellness Connection platform currently integrates data from two activity-monitor vendors, Fitbit and FitLinxx. By the second half of 2015, this will have increased to 13 vendors, allowing managers to incorporate data from 130 different devices into their wellness programs.
Patel emphasizes that companies are likely to enjoy more success by figuring out what their workers are already using and designing a program that can accommodate them -- rather than a more top-down approach.
"We've tried it with really basic pedometers -- you could call them toss-away devices. But if people already have Fitbit and FuelBand, now you are asking them to wear a company-branded piece that may not be as accurate, and it takes the fizz out of the program," she says. "When it comes to wellness engagement, it's about meeting people where they're at."
That has also been the goal of the CaféWell Health Optimization Platform, which offers "agnostic integration."
"It is designed to support everything from an old-school pedometer to a Fitbit or Jawbone," explains Michael Dermer, wellness program expert and chief incentive officer for Welltok, the technology company that developed CaféWell.
While incentive planners are working to meet workers on their terms, the evolution in wearable technology, and sophistication in the metrics they track, also means that programs can target far more than how many steps someone walks in a day.
"Participation is pretty 101 these days," says Dermer. "Most employers and the vendors that serve them are looking for risk reduction and cost indicators."
Welltok clients are now most interested in period-over-period improvements in biometrics. They use a consistent set of measures to track improvements in these behaviors to cost reductions -- for example, using telehealth (connecting with healthcare providers online) to encourage participants to select a lower-cost treatment.
Last year, Virgin Pulse, a major player in the worker wellness sector, introduced Max, a Bluetooth-enabled, personalized wearable fitness device, which connects to the company's new app, Virgin Pulse Mobile. Similar to HBC, Virgin Pulse has also made it a priority to connect with workers who have their own device preferences. Their partner program has expanded significantly in the last couple years to ensure users have the greatest amount of flexibility in the devices they use.
"Monitoring wellbeing goes beyond tracking physical activity," says Jennifer Turgiss, vice president of health solutions for Virgin Pulse. "It includes things like stress, sleep, nutrition, etc. Broadly speaking, with wearables and apps, people can now track anything they want, examine data, and know when positive or negative changes are happening."
For example, Virgin Pulse is aiming to add sleep-tracking functions to Max in the near future. Another surprising wellness area that wearable-enabled apps are exploring is measuring emotions. In April, Hitachi plans to roll out a new "happiness meter" that workers wear like a name badge. It uses acceleration sensors, which send signals back to a database that measures overall workplace happiness (to avoid privacy issues of looking at individual workers' attitudes and emotions).
A more holistic approach to tracking emotion comes from MoodHacker. The app encourages healthy habits regarding physical activity, sleep, and nutrition, and incorporates social support and personalized messaging to help lift moods.
"While MoodHacker is not a treatment program, it can be used supplementally for any individual in order to feel just a little better each day," explains Dr. Dave Sharar, managing director of Chestnut Global Partners (CGP), the group behind MoodHacker. "It is designed for daily use -- really, just a few minutes a day -- to track mood, activities, and journaling to help users raise their awareness of the influence of their daily activities on their mood and activate easy positive behaviors that will directly impact it."
Users can take short assessments to receive personalized recommendations on things they could do to feel better and continue to improve their emotional and physical health. Wellness educational content is delivered through brief videos, articles, and weekly emails. Sharar adds that CGP took pains to give the program a strong scientific basis, clinically testing it for effectiveness in a controlled trial funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Though it is still in its beta stage -- the product is being used by some 350 workers at a Fortune 100 manufacturing company) -- MoodHacker points to the more comprehensive direction wellness metrics are moving.
These tools are also making wellness a lot more fun, as Service Foods saw. Being able to track workers' steps and exercise performance made the experience more interactive and flexible to each individual's wellness needs.
"It's engaged entertainment, not passive," says Tinney. He says adding the popularity of gaming to the attention placed on worker healthcare costs leads to "an unlikely but very effective pairing of solution with need."
Part of a Complete Program
Creative new gadgets and apps are proving an effective tool for engaging workers, particularly those who might not otherwise have been drawn into a more traditional program. But the success of "A Step Ahead: Zombies" at Service Foods brings up a different point that incentive planners will want to keep in mind as wellness apps get more engaging and wearable gadgets cooler: these are only one part of a comprehensive program.
"As someone who designs wellness programs, these tools are helpful, but not the end-all-be-all," cautions Saul Juan Antonio Cuautle, CEO and founder of MOS Training Systems.
He emphasizes that when companies make MyFitnessPal or Fitbit the entire focus of a wellness program, the program will fall short. Workers focusing only on the numbers of calories their device says they burned (or zombies they avoided) are more likely to feel disenchanted by their overall lack of results after a week or two. Instead, Cuautle believes that focusing on making habits -- spending a designated amount of time at the gym or sticking with an exercise regimen over a specific period of time -- leads to stronger long-term results.
"Just because you walk 8,000 steps in a day, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose X pounds per week. The nutrition is not to be overlooked, or the quality of exercise performed," says Cuautle.
Instead, he recommends seeing these tools as "avenues of information for wellness programs." They can add metrics and fun to an overall program, but should build on a firm foundation of education, long-term goals, and frequent recognition of success.
Virgin Pulse's Turgiss agrees. "Wearable fitness devices as a component of these more comprehensive programs are a great way for people to track their wellbeing and improve daily habits that'll lead to long-term healthy behaviors that help buffer the effects of modern life," she says.
Turgiss sees this as an additional argument in favor of company-sponsored wellness programs. While workers may already have a Jawbone or MyFitnessPal, connecting this interest in health to a more extensive program, fueled by incentives and social recognition, is more likely to ensure long-term success.
As Turgiss says, "People who use wearable devices as a component of a larger program have a greater chance of success than with devices that are used without wraparound programs."