Beer is not exactly a health food. So how does a beer distribution company engage employees in wellness? Thomas Williams, director of accounting for Florida-based beer distribution company Wayne Densch, faced that issue and found a solution in a wearable fitness tracker program offered by the company’s insurer, UnitedHealthcare.

The program, UnitedHealthcare Motion, links financial incentives through the use wearable devices, which are provided free to participating employees and their spouses. Employees are able to earn up to $1,460 per year by meeting certain goals for the number of daily steps, while employers can get premium savings based on program participants’ combined results.

Employees at Wayne Densch got their trackers in January and were motivated to start using them, says Williams, because of the financial incentive. “We didn’t really have to do a whole lot as a company to promote people wearing it because from the very beginning, we told people ‘you can earn $1,400 a year and this can be used to offset your high-deductible plan,’” he says. “A lot of people were already proactive about using it.”

Employees enrolled in the program receive a Trio Tracker at no cost; the cost of the device is built in to the premium paid by the employer. It’s a custom proprietary tracker with specific algorithms and connectivity to Qualcomm Life’s 2net mobile platform. To earn incentives, the device tracks three areas:

· Frequency (six times/day for at least five minutes) earns people $1.50/day.

· Intensity (3,000 steps in 30 minutes) earns people $1.25/day.

· Tenacity (10,000 total steps) earns participants $1.25/day.

UnitedHealthcare provides the incentive in the form of a deductible credit in employees’ health reimbursement account on a quarterly basis. So far, Wayne Densch has achieved an 85% participation rate in the program, which marks the company’s first foray into wellness.

“Obviously, we're still in the infant stages and I'm sure almost in the honeymoon phase where everyone's excited about it and using it,” acknowledges Williams. “It would be a little bit hard to comment on how well engaged we stay long term.”

UnitedHealthcare is rolling the program out in 12 states and Washington, D.C. for its fully insured employer-clients, those with 100 to 300 employees, says Steve Beecy, a vice president and UnitedHealthcare and a key developer of UnitedHealthcare Motion.

“We’re looking at it in terms of its ability to impact health status, but also into the behavioral side of what drives people’s decisions around that physical activity,” he says. “It’s highly possible over time this will continue to evolve.”

Wellness at work

A new EBN survey, which drew responses from 289 benefit managers, administrators and HR professionals from across the country, finds that the majority of employers (62%) currently have wellness programs in place. Among those employers who currently don’t have a wellness program but have started thinking about one, 24% say wellness is simply not a priority right now, while 18% cite lack of resources.

Lack of resources was also cited as one of the main reasons employers got out of the wellness game, according to the data. Among those employers which used to have a wellness program but which do not currently have one, 21% said their former program was a hassle to administer, while 14% cited lack of resources.

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“You can’t just do a physical activity contest over and over and over again and expect people to stay excited about that,.

Sustaining long-term engagement in wellness initiatives is also a challenge say many in the wellness industry. “You can’t just do a physical activity contest over and over and over again and expect people to stay excited about that,” says Danna Korn, CEO of Sonic Boom Wellness.

And while wearable fitness trackers hold great promise, “you can’t just hand somebody a device and expect that they’re going to use it, and especially expect that they’re going to use it on a long-term basis,” says Korn, adding that the relevance of programming coupled with a strong social component are two of the most important elements in building a successful wellness program that will engage employees over the long term.

“Companies get really excited to do a walking challenge or a steps-based challenge, but if I’m not a walker, I’m not really interested. If I’m a runner, I’m not interested in walking challenge. If I’m a skier, I’d sure rather do a skiing challenge to see who can do more vertical feet of skiing this month than a walking challenge,” she says, advising employers to look for wellness platforms that allow employees to create their own contests in a personalized way.

Technology driving programs

Indeed, technology is driving wellness programs like never before, says Deb Smolensky, health and wellness director at NFP, a benefits brokerage. “For the most part when we analyze the solutions out there, they are grounded in technology and often times they’re technology companies now entering the wellness space,” she says. Her advice for employers looking for a wellness tech vendor? Ask for a list of all the different devices and technology solution the vendor integrates with.

“I always ask vendors where they are with engaging and incorporating the Apple Watch because I know at least 10 employees at each of my client [companies] are going to have an Apple Watch and I don’t want them to not be able to participate,” she says.

When it comes to wellness programs, consistency of experience matters, says Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum. “Is it a consistent experience across modalities, whether I’m talking to someone on the telephone or using a digital platform, or whether I’m one-on-one with them in some way, that consistent experience is really important,” he says.

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“It’s really easy to say ‘if Google’s doing it, that must work for us’ or ‘that must be the best out there."

Smolensky also cautions against getting caught up in what she calls the “flavor of the day.”

“It’s really easy to say ‘if Google’s doing it, that must work for us’ or ‘that must be the best out there,’” she says. But employers must have a good handle on the needs and values of their employees. “Often times, I get articles sent to me about what Netflix is doing, or what some other company is doing, and asking me to look into it. When we talk about it, there is no relevance, no fit for their employee population. … I always encourage employers to think about that.”

Among employers which formerly had a wellness program, but do not currently have one, 7% cited the inability to measure ROI as the reason for no longer having the program, according to the EBN survey.

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ROI is “an endless battle and can always be dispelled or supported in either case."

ROI is “an endless battle and can always be dispelled or supported in either case,” believes Smolensky. “I always just make sure [employers] measure how they’re doing against what their objectives are for the program and then we work with that vendor to try to tweak it to their needs.”

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