Category: Corporate Wellness

Many companies are investing in wearable devices, such as Fitbit and Garmin.  These investments come at a significant price, often as high as $100 per device.  They also result in ongoing expenses as companies find solutions for new hires and replacing broken or lost devices.  Despite these purchases, it remains unclear whether investing in wearables for employees leads to better health outcomes.  Regardless, Canadian insurance giant, John Hancock, announced that it will be subsidizing the Apple Watch Series 2 (approximately $400 retail) so employees can get one for as little as $25.

Similar to Aetna, who also is subsidizing Apple Watches for employees and its customers, the subsidy is part of the company’s wellness program.  Employees are asked to pay $25 upfront, and if they remain active and track their activities through the Apple Watch, they will not be asked for any more payments.  If employees fail to meet their goals, there will be a monthly fee on the device spread out over the course of 24 months that they will be required to pay.  It unclear what the policy is for employees with Android devices or if an employee loses or breaks the Apple Watch.  Either way, the investment is quite significant, and as such, the expectations from the program need to be equally grandiose.

The appropriate question for Aetna, John Hancock, and other companies considering a similar investment needs to address the opportunity cost for the subsidy.  With more than $300 in capital being contributed per employee, could these companies make better use of these funds while delivering on similar objectives?  Before we render any judgement, let’s see how things programs turn out and whether or not the companies continue to invest in the program.16

Category: Facts and Research

There is no shortage of studies assessing the ability of fitness trackers to promote physical activity, weight loss, disease management, and more.  Fitbit even created a research library just to manage and promote the hundreds of studies utilizing its technology.  Despite the increasing volume of research, there has been very little analysis about how communication surrounding such devices may contribute to their success.  Through interviews with 25 fitness tracker users, a recent study explores how and with whom people communicate fitness tracker messages and ventures to explain the effects of sociomaterial practice on interactions between wearable fitness device users.

Participants in the study communicated data from their fitness tracker through face-to-face communications, traditional technologies (text messaging, photo sharing, etc.), and social media.  The participants described, through interviews, the effects of the communication of their fitness tracker information, which are outline below.

Fitness Messages
The social interaction of sharing fitness results with acquaintances and strangers allowed for continued discussion on healthy behaviors.  The results of these interactions varied from user to user, but the common theme is that it added fuel, relevance, and importance to the physical activity that supported the one-way feedback the activity tracker alone could provide.

Interactions Between Fitness Tracker Users
Participants discussed how the social features built into fitness tracker apps helped them compete with peers, meet their goals, and stay motivated.  Most fitness tracker apps have leaderboards that allow users to compete in step challenges, which prompted them to keep pace with others, as well as goal setting that provides updates throughout the day about how someone is tracking toward their goal.  Combined with push notifications and easy access to app information, leaderboards and goal setting helped the users stay motivated.  This information could also be communicated to non-users to enhance adherence and achievement.

The results of the study highlight two important characteristics of fitness trackers that many people ignore when assessing their value.  First, they encourage users to share their information by allowing them to use their data as a vehicle to communicate about their physical activity.  Second, fitness trackers communicate information back to the users in the form of leaderboards, progress towards goals, calories burned, etc. to help them stay motivated.  The impacts of communication on the efficacy of fitness trackers should be represented, to some extent, in many of the other studies available to the public, but this study focused on communication as an engagement tool.  Kudos to the authors.  The study certainly has limitations, including the sample size, that are outlined in the document so follow up research is certainly needed.

Category: Corporate Wellness

A recent article in Employee Benefits News discusses the growing importance of “soft” benefits in recruiting and retaining talent.  Hard benefits, traditionally defined as health insurance and retirement plans, used to be sufficient for employees, but as these benefits have become more mainstream, leading employers are expanding offerings to attract employees.  The article reviews six emerging benefits that are increasingly being implemented as ammunition in the talent wars, and it should come as no surprise that five of the six benefits are related to employee wellness.  The five wellness benefits that made the soft benefits list were:

  • Subsidized gym memberships
  • Activity tracker competitions
  • Incentives for bicycle commuting
  • Healthier food and beverage choices
  • Flexible work arrangements

As a company that facilitates activity tracker competitions (a.k.a., wellness challenges), we were proud to see that the article mentioned the use of free smartphone apps.  Employers do not need to purchase every employee an activity tracker to support these challenges.  They can leverage free smartphone apps to track steps, distance, nutrition, and more.

Despite the popularity of wellness offerings in soft benefits, it should not be surprising that biometric screenings and health risks assessments did not make the list, as employees do not see these as attractive benefits.  Valuable benefits are designed to offer employees highly sought solutions that impact their favorability rating toward their employer, encourage them to recommend their employer as a great place to work, and improve the quality of their life.  Employees often feel uncomfortable sharing their personal health information with their employer.  Also, they would rather see their own primary care physician than having their blood drawn by a stranger.  Since the services of a biometrics screening are required to be covered under every health plan, providing onsite screenings offer no real benefit other than signaling to employees that their employers cares more about managing healthcare costs with an ineffective solution than truly caring for their employees.

The lesson here is that wellness benefits can go a long way in making sure a company has the right talent to succeed but not all wellness benefits are created equal.

Category: Facts and Research

A recent study published in the journal Preventative Medicine looks at whether social support, competition, or teamwork provides an answer to one of the ongoing dilemmas plaguing corporate wellness programs – participation.  Researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that competition was a far stronger motivation for exercise than friendly support.  In fact, giving people support made them less likely to go to the gym less than simply leaving them alone.

According to Damon Centola, the senior author on the paper, “most people think that when it comes to social media more is better.  This study shows that isn’t true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors.  However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people’s fitness dramatically.”

The study recruited nearly 800 Pennsylvania graduate and professional students to sign up for an 11-week exercise program called PennShape.  PennShape provided the participants with weekly exercise classes, fitness mentoring, and nutrition advice.  The program was managed through a website the researchers built.  Participants who attended the most exercise classes during the program won prizes.

The researchers split the participants into four groups to test how different kinds of social networks affected exercise levels.  The four groups were: individual competition, team support, team competition, and a control group.  In the individual group, participants could see exercise leaderboards listing anonymous program members and earned prizes based on their own success attending classes.  For each team group, participants were assigned to a unit.  In the team support group, they could chat online and encourage team members to exercise, with rewards going to the most successful teams with the most class attendance.  In addition, those in the team competition group could see a leaderboard of other teams and their team standing.  Participants in the control group could use the website and go to any class, but were not given any social connections on the website; prizes in this group were based on individual success taking classes.

1-s2-0-s2211335516300936-gr3A review of the results showed the competition motivated participants to exercise the most, with attendance rates 90% higher in the competitive groups than in the control group.  Both team and individual competition equally drove the students to work out, with participants in the former taking a mean of 38.5 classes a week and those in the latter taking 35.7.  Members of the control group went to the gym far less often, on average 20.3 times a week.

The researchers were surprised by the number of workouts a week by members of the team support group (16.8, on average).  This is half the exercise rate of the competitive groups.  “Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” Centola says.

This study is certainly very interesting but should also be taken with a grain of salt.  More studies need to be conducted with populations that go broader than just students.  Nevertheless, employers, health plans, and wellness coordinators should think about the results of this research when creating their programs.

Category: Corporate Wellness

Guardian Life Insurance Company of America’s 4th Annual Workplace Benefits Study revealed that a majority of working Americans are overestimating the knowledge needed to make informed decisions about their benefits to set them on a path toward employee well-being.  Through a 10-question, true-false quiz given to 1,439 employees age 22 or older, the report showed that while 80% of employees believe they understand their benefits very well, only 49% demonstrated they actually do (as defined by scoring an A or B).  The quiz also revealed that millennials received the lowest scores, with one in four receiving a failing grade.

There seems to be a communication breakdown as the survey shows that working Americans are less positive about their company’s benefits education efforts, including the effectiveness of benefits meetings and health fairs.  This is an important opportunity for human resources, which 46% of Americans rely upon as their source of benefits information, to make a difference in helping their employees become educated and feel confident in their benefits choices.

How To Guide For Health Fairs
Results of the quiz indicate workers are most interested in the following employee benefits topics, which clearly indicate a desire for financial benefits and wellness.

  • 38% savings for retirement
  • 19% protecting income
  • 17% reducing debt
  • 16% how benefits work

As employee wellness programs fall under benefits, the workplace remains an integral part of working employees’ financial security.  With approximately 50% of employees having a good understanding of their workplace benefits, more can be done to help them make benefits decisions.  The good news is that most employers want to facilitate these decisions as well.  The report showed that “helping employees make better benefits decisions” is the second most important benefits strategy behind “making plan design changes to reduce costs”.  If employers want to react to the suggestions of employees, below is the list of top recommendations.

  • Simple, clear explanation of benefits
  • Personalized information tailored to employees
  • Access to expert guidance to answer questions
  • Online support including interactive tools

In the end, research findings show that more effective communications can lead to employees valuing their workplace benefits and having increased loyalty to the companies they work for.

Category: Corporate Wellness

Last week, we published a post about five of our favorite examples of unique wellness benefits currently being implemented by leading companies.  After incredible interest in these examples, we thought we would create a Bay Area edition.  In the hypercompetitive arena of Silicon Valley, the march toward innovation has companies heavily investing in the recruitment and retention of their most valuable asset – their employees.  These organizations also have a strong desire to keep their employees healthy and productive.  As a result, many of them  offer unique and differentiated wellness benefits that are worth sharing.

Time from work is essential for recharging and staying fresh.  This community-driven hospitality company offers their employees a $500 travel credit every quarter for a stay at any Airbnb listing worldwide.  The benefit allows employees to recharge while regularly connecting with their host community.  Employees also receive four hours of paid time off each month to volunteer around the globe.  Combining the two benefits may be a popular choice amongst employees…

Unlimited paid time off is critical to Dropbox’s work-life balance strategy.  Employees can use benefit for new parent leave, family vacations, sick days, and more so they never worry about being unable to detach from work.  Combined with charitable contribution matching and other social impact benefits, Dropbox provides employees with the time and resources to connect and support their communities.

As a customer-oriented company, Salesforce takes care of their employees so they can take care of their customers.  It is no surprise that wellbeing is one of Salesforce’s fundamental values.  From treadmill desks to workout classes to a wellness reimbursement program ($100 every month to be used on health and fitness programs), Salesforce has it all.  They also have wellness zones in which employees can put away their devices and practice mindfulness.  To provide employees with opportunities to expand their minds away from work, Salesforce launched a Press Pause speaker series.  Speakers discuss subjects relating to core values, which includes numerous sessions on wellbeing.

Unlike the tweets that made this company a household name, Twitter’s wellness benefits do not come up short.  Health benefits include meditation rooms and ergonomic consultations for your workspace.  The company also has an in-house fresh juice and smoothie bar and onsite exercise classes throughout the day.

In addition to purchasing Fitbits for every employee, Zillow has wellness days where the whole office takes a full day off to “press the reset button” and participate in Zillow-sponsored fitness events (hiking, biking, Soul Cycle, boot camp, etc.), eat healthy food, and get massages.  The company offers rich maternity and paternity benefits, and once mothers are back at work, they can take advantage of fully-equipped nursing rooms with hospital grade pumps and fridges as well as overnight breastmilk shipping when traveling on business.

Category: Corporate Wellness

As employee health and wellness continues to become an area of focus for employers across the world, leading companies are making unique and differentiating wellness perks a staple of their benefits package.  These benefits are becoming the norm and are critical for companies to recruit, retain, and engage talent.  Below are five of our favorite examples currently being implemented by companies.

JP Morgan Chase
Despite the prevalence of autism in the United States (one in 68 children), few companies offer autism benefits.  JPMorgan Chase offers autism benefits to its 160,000 U.S. employees, many of which are being affected by the disease.  Benefits include coverage for the initial autism diagnosis and the various types of therapies that are often prescribed for the neurobiological disorder.  This includes applied behavioral analytics, cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional counseling, periodic developmental screening, individual or group family therapy, speech and occupational and physical therapy.

Boxed takes helping employees with large life event expenses very seriously.  It starts with paying for college tuition for the children of employees and includes covering the wedding expenses for all unmarried employees.  With benefits like these, Boxed likely enjoys high employee retention.  Don’t be surprised when parents tell their children that they spent their entire careers at Boxed!

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)
Employers are beginning to see the toll that student debt is taking on their employees.  This includes higher stress and personal distractions.  PwC responded this summer by helping nearly half of its 46,000 employees pay down their student loans.  The company will contribute $100 per month ($1,200 per year) for up to six years (a maximum of $7,200) to help non-management employees pay down their student loans.  With an average employee age of 28, the impact will certainly be felt and recognized.

Last year, Microsoft made a number of changes to its benefits package, including doubling the amount of paid time off new parents will receive, adding companywide holidays, and reworking its 401(k) matching program.  The company also began to offer one-on-one financial coaching sessions with a Fidelity representative.  According to the Microsoft benefits team, one of the goals of the changes was to equalize healthcare and retirement benefits, which highlights the increasingly important role financial wellness is playing in overall well-being.

La Macchia Enterprises
Content is king!  La Macchia posts new health and wellness content on their website every day and employees are regularly encouraged to check it out.  The company also hosts an annual “Wellness Action Day,” a daylong event for employees and their families that features wellness vendors, healthy snacks, and fitness games.  With more than 95% participation in the program, the wellness program must be doing something right.

Category: Corporate Wellness

Twenty years ago, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) conducted the Innovative Benefits Survey to measure the state of employee benefits at that time.  The recurring survey, which has been modified over the years, continues to follow changes in employee benefits and, as expected, shows the evolution of employee benefits in a world where recruiting and retaining talent continues to be more challenging.

According to the 2016 version of the survey (2016 Employee Benefits Research Report), the types of benefits programs grew from 60 in 1996 to 344 in 2016.  This number reflects benefits programs covered in the study, which does not mean it captures all types of benefits.  In addition to various forms of health insurance, the stable benefits include prescription drug coverage, employer assistance programs, medical flexible spending accounts, long-term care insurance, paid vacation, retirement preparation planning, and wellness programs.

In regard to employee wellness, 92% of employers responded that they offer some type of wellness benefit.  The specifics of what is offered varies significantly from employer to employer.  Wellness resources and information grew from 54% in 1996 to 72%, in 2016 while smoking cessation programs decreased 4% (45% to 41%) during the same period.  Onsite health screening programs decreased the most (22%) from 53% in 1996 to 31% in 2016.  This should come as no surprise because employers are realizing, albeit very slowly, that biometric screenings do not work.  In the past 12 months, organizations that increased their employee benefits were most likely to increase health-related (58%) or wellness (45%) benefits, showing the importance employee health has become within the benefits paradigm.

Another interesting piece from the survey was the increase in popularity of standing desks.  The use of standing desks at work increased from 13% in 2013 (the first year it was included in the survey) to 33% in 2016.  This increase is shocking given that research shows that standing desks do little to support health.  This is because the incremental number of calories burned by standing vs. sitting is minimal.  When wellness advocates report that sitting is the new smoking, employers should not think that avodng sitting is the cure.  The cure for the problem is walking or other physical activity.

Category: Facts and Research

A study from Financial Finesse shows that the burdens of financial stress have significant and tangible impacts on employers and employees. As a result, proper financial wellness tools have the ability to significantly benefit both parties.

“For its 2016 ROI Special Report, Financial Finesse conducted a case study of a Fortune 100 company’s comprehensive workplace financial wellness program from 2009 to 2014.  Depending on employer size, employers can save up to $433,007 in garnishments, up to $682,034 in flex spending/health savings, and up to $4,347,275 in absenteeism by improving the workforce’s financial wellness score from 4 to 5 on a 10-point scale.  The savings is even greater when improving the workforce’s financial wellness score from 4 to 6.”  Savings from flex spending/health savings accounts are a result of greater contribution rates from employees with higher financial wellness scores.  When an employee increases his or her contribution to one of these pre-tax savings accounts, an employer has lower FICA tax expenses.

The study also found higher financial wellness scores correlate with the ability and choice to make increased retirement saving deferrals.  Although employees overall were not saving the recommended 10% to 15% of their income for retirement, those with higher financial wellness levels made larger contributions on average.  An analysis of retirement plan contribution rates found that employees that improve their financial wellness score from 4 to 6 could potentially improve their retirement plan balance by more than 27%.  Increased savings reduces financial stress, and as a result, employees may have improved overall health.


Financial wellness programs are just beginning to become staples of employee health programs.  For organizations looking to incorporate financial wellness into their benefits offering for the first time, there are a number of budget friendly options to choose from.  For those employers with a 401 (k) plan, the plan administrator should have free financial wellness resources for their clients to use.  There are also a number of advocacy groups and wellness vendors, including Wellable, that offer a free financial wellness seminar/webinar.

Category: Facts and Research

Employers, health plans, and government agencies all try to ascribe a value to healthy living.  Each one has their own motivation and perspective on why they care, but all of these reasons focus, to some degree, on managing healthcare expenses.  Since individuals (employees, members, etc.) are the focus of healthy living programs, program sponsors should focus on how to engage these users.  A multi-faceted approach works best, and most employers and health plans put rewards and incentives at the center of their engagement strategy.  One of the downfall of this approach is that the economics of participation are largely driven by the sponsor funding prizes to encourage employees to participate.  In addition to funded rewards, sponsors should also focus on the economic value of healthy living to the individual.  NOTE: Healthy living has numerous benefits, but this post focuses strictly on financial benefits.

A study suggests that individuals who exercise with as little as 30 minutes of walking for five days a week could save up to $2,500 a year.  This amount is multiples higher than most sponsor-funded rewards so wellness programs would be wise to educate individuals on this benefit if they believe financial rewards will drive the most engagement.  The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, looked at data from more than 26,000 men and women and included researchers from leading academic institutions and hospitals, including Yale and Johns Hopkins.

To capture the data necessary for the study, researchers utilized the annual Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which asks a large, representative group what they spent on healthcare (insurance premiums, pharmacy, etc.) in the past year.  It also captures information on diagnosed illnesses as well as lifestyle issues, such as income, educational level, and, most importantly, physical activity levels.  With all this information, the researchers split the respondents into two groups: those that met the national exercise guidelines (30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week) and those that did not.  The analysis showed that individuals that met the national exercise guidelines spent $2,500 less in annual healthcare expenses as it relates to cardiovascular disease.  The savings included $400 on prescription medicines and far fewer emergency room visits and hospitalizations.  The researchers controlled for insurance coverage.

If financial incentives are a big part of their wellness engagement strategy, sponsors should focus on educating individuals on the lower healthcare costs associated with a physically active lifestyle.  Since the study focused on just cardiovascular disease, the researchers believe that the amount of savings could actually be much higher.