EBN profiled two employers, Elkay Manufacturing Company and The University of Michigan, which use biometric screenings to drive the larger message of healthy living home to their employees. The University of Alabama has also made impressive wellness strides by promoting and integrating their screening initiative in an overarching well-being campaign.

For this collegiate employer, what is even more important than the health numbers stemming from biometrics is the context for those numbers.

“If the health screening is done in coordination with the health education component, it not only provides an awareness campaign, but a true educational opportunity to reinforce and encourage individuals to have an on-going established relationship and conversation with providers,” says Rebecca Kelly, Director, Health Promotion and Wellness, at the Tuscaloosa-based University of Alabama. 

Alabama has high levels of diabetes in their state and employee population at the university: upwards of 30% of employees have pre-diabetes. Kelly sees the screenings as an opportunity for employees to have a full picture of their health, but also for the employer, so that it can locate emerging risks, such as high blood pressure, pre-diabetes or sedentary lifestyles, which helps the school in turn to better design its benefits plan as well as target interventions.

As part of the university’s branded wellness program, Wellbama, the school conducts health screenings and health coaching efforts annually and on-site at each of its schools and divisions. Employees’ results are categorized in four health clubs, with Crimson level being the healthiest, in reference to the school colors.

Those in Crimson level must meet certain criteria: they can’t smoke, they must have a BMI under 25, exercise five days a week, and their blood work values must be healthy and normal. The university also offers alternative standards so those with chronic conditions have a fair chance at earning the highest recognition of health. Each year, employees can be reevaluated, and so far, all of the program’s bronze members have since moved to silver or gold and the Crimson club grew from 10% last year to 30%. 

This strategy “motivates them. It gives them a purpose of not only knowing their numbers, but actually doing something about it,” says Kelly, who adds that these incentive levels also build morale and offer a team-building experience as individuals improve their healthy behaviors. The university further spurs engagement with financial rewards reflecting participants’ wellness level – jumping from $25 to $200 per year if they’re in the Crimson club.

To boost their health scores, employees have started their own walking clubs and a 5k running group. After four years, that developed into another 10k running group, as well as a grassroots cycling club.

The program utilizes the enthusiasm of its wellness ambassadors (1 for every 100 employees), who help organize and build excitement around biometrics and other initiatives. These ambassadors know their academic department best and tailor communication to target their direct colleagues. One challenge in delivering messages in a collegiate environment is the very many events competing with their messages, so these ambassadors are key. The school’s communication department has also helped develop best practices in getting the message out and found informal peer-to -peer dialogue the most effective.

So far, the university has enjoyed improvements in all categories of health: reductions in tobacco use, increases in activity and exercise, improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels and better control of diabetes. 

“Everyone engaged in this program has continued to improve. We have 95% who have either sustained their health or improved it...Without some intention and intervention the likelihood of us improving health as we age each year is not likely," says Kelly.

“You want a program that’s positive not punitive,” adds Joe O’Brien, president and CEO of Interactive Health.

The University of Alabama has done so very successfully. By communicating all the information to line management and having informal champions drive the message and purpose home, the spread of information has been much more effective, since those folks are often better communicating with peers than supervisors.

O’Brien reminds employers to approach screenings and wellness in general in ways that employees understand. By presenting how this data will be used and not used, employees won’t feel skeptical.

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