Benefits Leadership in Healthcare award winner built a path to wellness from the ground up

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Most benefits professionals will be hard pressed to have a conversation around company healthcare without using one of today’s buzziest of buzz words: wellness.

But back in 2002, when Julie Wilkes began advocating for a wellness program when she started as an HR consultant at professional services firm Accenture, the consultancy had absolutely no interest in the then-new concept, she says. Lacking credentials in wellness and physical fitness, Wilkes took two years to earn a master’s degree in exercise physiology and health behavior at Ohio State University in 2004, only to return to Accenture and start the program without any funding or sponsorship.

Back in her HR consultant position, Wilkes informally began developing exercise routines and a healthy eating plan. Her coworkers, who were looking for a work-life balance and wanted to commit themselves to wellness, took notice. Soon enough, Accenture leadership also noticed and turned it into her full-time job in 2007.

“I did it because I really felt it was important and I got quite a big following,” she says. “It took quite a few years of convincing that this was worth putting money into. Now, our leadership absolutely gets it.”

Fifteen years after Wilkes’ vision for a company-wide wellness plan, the firm’s program has evolved from a grassroots effort into Accenture Active, a highly personalized, high-tech program. About 35,000 of Accenture’s 50,000 U.S. employees, nearly 70%, have embraced it.

The success also has helped earn Wilkes, now Accenture’s North American Wellness and Disability Program Lead, this year’s EBN Benefits Leadership in Healthcare Award.

See also: EBN announces Benny Award winners

From paper to app: an evolution

When Wilkes started the Accenture wellness program in 2002, she says employees responded to what she thought were important aspects of wellness, such as exercise and healthy eating. From there, she brought in various vendors to better assist employee wellness; however, the variety of programs were not housed in a central hub and became too fragmented, she says. As her wellness program evolved, the firm also toyed with its incentives and offerings before settling on its latest iteration, Accenture Active, with the help of digital health benefits platform Jiff, which is now part of Castlight Health.

Although the mobile-enabled integrated wellness platform is white-labeled and powered by Jiff, Wilkes and her team work internally and with multiple vendors to provide resources like health coaching and discounts, along with a rewards center, to Accenture’s 50,000 U.S. employees.

Employees can access the platform via a company portal with their employee log-in information, and although Accenture has a variety of apps in Apple’s App Store, Accenture Active is only available to employees through the company.

“We’ve been able to really shift and make it a really enjoyable employee experience by putting everything under one umbrella and making it a very sophisticated, simple tool,” Wilkes says. “The biggest change has probably been just in our delivery model and how we reach people and using the science of social media and what we understand how people respond to things.”

The wellness program aims to engage employees in a number of key areas: holistic health, incentives (around $600 a year), engaging user experience, employee communication and measurement. While the program can be accessed online, Accenture launched its mobile app, which has Android, iOS and Microsoft capabilities, in January 2016 to encourage higher rates of employee engagement because it’s at their fingertips.

“We’re a tech company,” Wilkes says. “You have an app for grocery shopping. You have an app for everything. If you have to go out to a website for your health, you’re not going to do it.”

Post it, share it

Before the app’s launch, Accenture primarily used social media as its method of communication regarding wellness; the firm had 150 social media posts on platforms like Twitter and Facebook that related to Accenture’s essential wellness program in a year.

Within six months of the app’s launch, employees created 30,000 posts about Accenture wellness that included planking photos and lists of office-friendly exercises. The platform includes a social feed and content center to drive organic employee interaction and engagement.

Employees also have streaming access to workout videos through the app and portal that Wilkes, a certified fitness instructor, produces from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

“I used to try to do it at my fitness studio, but everybody liked it when I did it at my house because my dogs would get into it,” she says. “It’s fun because it’s not something you would expect. You expect it to be professional at Accenture, but having the wellness lead at her house with her dogs doing planks, there’s something fun.”

She adds: “If I don’t do a video with my dogs, people will comment, ‘Where are the dogs?’”

Connecting heart, body, mind and soul

Interacting with employees is one of the most rewarding parts of Wilkes’ job.

“When I’m teaching classes to people before or after work and they’re telling me what they’re able to do or not able to do at their work, it gives me a sneak peek at what we can do for our people,” she says. “My background in fitness and health, all of that helps me understand the human psyche for [the reasons] why I will or will not do something, and that then helps me make more programs meaningful at Accenture.”

Wilkes knows a thing or two about the intersection of the human psyche and wellness.

Diagnosed with heart disease at a very young age, doctors told her she wouldn’t live to be older than 12. Now 41, Wilkes is a fitness instructor, wellness expert, motivational speaker, life coach, small business owner, author and entrepreneur, and looks to make fitness a personal mission for every employee using the program.

“We try to develop programs that aren’t just about running marathons, that aren’t just about fitness,” she says. “Maybe it’s about you just having the energy to play with your grandchild. We can use motivation that’s real for our people and what they might be motivated by.”

One part of Accenture Active’s marketing campaign is its Journeyers program, where 30 employees take on a 90-day blogging position to talk about their journey to wellness and the tools they are using.

The blogs are for employees, by employees, and are posted within Accenture Active.

“We pick different people who have different stories so different people can relate to each one,” Wilkes says. “So maybe there’s somebody who’s pregnant. Maybe there’s a single dad trying to raise his teenage daughter and teach her good health habits. Maybe there’s somebody who’s gained some weight recently and is trying to lose it. Maybe somebody had a heart attack and he’s trying to live a heart healthy lifestyle now.”

The Journeyers program launched last June. Since then, the blogging program has shared about 60 stories.

The wellness program incorporates various incentives to drive employee engagement, according to Accenture. In fact, program engagement fell when incentives were lowered in previous program iterations. Now, employees receive initial enrollment incentives when they sign up for the wellness program, such as a $150 credit toward buying a wearable device. About 42,000 employees ordered a wearable, and 55% of those employees track their numbers regularly, Wilkes says.

“Those numbers are far and above from our previous program [prior to Accenture Active]. Our engagement was more around 20% and tracking was all self-report, and that was much lower, maybe at 10% to 15%,” she says. “You can see the contrast. The awareness alone is super powerful that so many people are just aware of their basics.”

Over the course of the year, employees can also earn up to $300 for participating in health coaching programs, screenings and other healthy activities, she adds. The company also offers a $150 premium reduction on an employee’s medical plan if she participates in the biometric program.

The program offers ongoing, real-time incentives on a points-based system that reward, encourage and build employee wellness habits. Employees can enter Accenture Active’s rewards center to use their points for a gift card, fitness class or their preferred reward. Since implementing the app in January 2016, the company says it has seen a 46% increase in activity tracking and more than 96,000 total redemptions in the rewards center.

Getting feedback

When Wilkes first started the program, she says employees responded to what she thought were important aspects of wellness. Now that the program benefits various populations, such as traveling, in-office and work-from-home employees, the one-size-fits-all model can’t sustain everyone at Accenture.

“I used to just think I knew what employees wanted because I’m an employee and I would hear people talk,” she says. “But I really started to find that I would know what some of those employees wanted, the ones who were easy to communicate to me, but there were a whole bunch of employees who maybe wanted something different that I was missing.”

To help gauge how enrollees were feeling about the program, Wilkes and her team created one-question surveys that determine where an employee is in that moment and how he can meet his goals today.

As the program evolves, Wilkes says she’s looking to grow Accenture’s wellness in the direction of mental health and sleep.

“Accenture has been amazing at not just trying to be a program but to also foster a lifestyle change,” she says.

“I’m not going to say we’re 100% there yet, but our leadership is completely supportive and on board and understands a healthy employee can do so much and be so happy and stay with the company longer.”

She adds, “That’s really our biggest push: continuing to find ways to take care of our employees.”

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