People are complex creatures, and figuring out their needs can be a challenge. Some thrive in the morning, while others prefer to work late into the night. Some love to run marathons, and some start to sweat at the thought of walking around the block.
If you’re an employer trying to design a wellness program for a large, diverse workforce, that complexity presents certain challenges. But, it’s possible to address those challenges with good program design and a willingness to adjust your approach based on lessons learned over time.
That’s exactly what BP, one of the country's largest producers and refiners of oil and natural gas, has done.
The company, with approximately 14,000 U.S. employees, introduced wearables in 2013 as part of a comprehensive wellness program, offering a broad array of health and financial well-being classes, biometric health screenings and coaching programs. By participating in wellness-related activities, employees could earn points, with a goal of reaching 1,000 points a year. Those who reached that goal qualified for a premium plan with richer benefits at the same cost as the default health plan.
BP introduced wearables into its wellness program with the launch of a movement-based activity challenge called the “Million Step Challenge.” The concept was straightforward: Participating employees received a free fitness tracker, and those who recorded 1 million steps in a year earned 500 points toward their incentive goal. The challenge began as a pilot program, because even then, the BP wellness and benefits team understood success would require being able to adjust to employee preferences and needs over time.
BP wanted to create a challenge structure that was simple and easy to implement, but that would engage employees over the course of the year. By participating, employees were committing to the challenge and the use of the device for a significant period, so using a pilot program allowed the company to identify a structure and approach that appealed to employees and kept them engaged and moving.
One million steps covers a lot of ground — by one estimate, it’s roughly 500 miles. For some of the company’s less active employees, it proved a daunting task — and a possible barrier to participation. To ensure all employees felt like they were able to participate and work toward an attainable goal, BP modified the program to offer a smaller number of points for employees who made progress toward the goal but did not reach 1 million steps.
At the other end of the spectrum, one million steps left some employees wanting more, so the wellness team also introduced rewards such as gift cards for employees who recorded two million, then three million steps. They also incorporated higher targets and opportunities to earn bonus points for milestones like logging 15,000 steps in a single weekend.
Modifying the program to meet employee needs helped BP keep people engaged, which led to positive outcomes, including:
· More than 27,000 people — 62% of all eligible individuals, including spouses and dependent partners — enrolled in the “Million Step Challenge” in 2015.
· More than 21,000 participants reached the million-step goal.
· 13,000 participants reached two million steps.
· 6,000 participants reached three million steps.
In addition to these impressive participation goals, BP realized other positive outcomes:
· Employees involved in the “Million Step Challenge” earned more points and stayed more consistent with their participation in BP’s overall well-being program than those who were not involved.
· “Million Step Challenge” participants had a lower level of physical activity risk, and showed greater health improvements than their non-participating co-workers.
· Since the program launched in 2013, challenge participants have improved their overall health risk status by more than 6% and their physical activity risk by 17%.
Promising practices for integrating wearables into wellness programs
BP’s well-being program has earned national recognition with a Platinum-level National Business Group on Health “Healthiest Employers Award” in 2013 and 2016, along with The Health Project’s C. Everett Koop National Health Award in 2014. But the company is not resting on its laurels.
BP continues to evolve its program based on employee response. The company conducts focus groups and uses pilot programs to fine-tune its offerings, and it incorporates feedback surveys into every major program.
In addition, BP participates in industry research designed to build a broader understanding of what works when using wearables. Most recently, the company contributed to a collaborative report spearheaded by HERO (the Health Enhancement Research Organization), called Wearables in Wellness: Employer Case Studies on the Use of Wearable Tracking Devices in Wellness Programs. This HERO case study report identifies promising practices for employer use of wearables as part of wellness programs and is a follow-up to the organization’s landmark study published in 2015 about why employers offer wearables.
Based on a series of employer interviews and case studies, including a case study of BP’s “Million Step Challenge,“ the HERO report identifies six promising practices for integrating wearables into a well-being program, including:
1. Start with a pilot program.
2. Offer wearables to spouses and domestic partners.
3. Incorporate culturally relevant incentives and tie them to wearable use. For example, in some workplaces a coveted parking spot may mean more than a cash reward.
4. Incorporate wearables into a comprehensive program.
5. Provide ongoing enhancements to keep things fresh.
6. Develop goals for the program and use wearables data to evaluate its success.
BP isn’t alone in seeing the value of wearables as a tool to engage employees in wellness programs. By one estimate, more than 75 million wearables will be in use in the workplace by 2020. But wearables are not a stand-alone solution. By putting a program in place to support their use, employers can make it more likely their employees will enroll, and that they will stay engaged.
As is the case with many innovations, research in the area of wearables lags behind practice. While the world waits for more research on the connection between wearable technology and long-term health outcomes, the experience of companies like BP provides preliminary evidence about promising practices that drive sustained device use and program participation. This knowledge can inform program design and fuel future research on how to effectively incorporate wearables into employee well-being programs.
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