Inside HR Tech Column Serious Results Through Gamification

Social and mobile technologies are enabling employers to take their wellness efforts to the next level.

Monday, May 13, 2013
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It's no secret that, in the last few years, employee benefits have risen to -- or near -- the top of most HR leaders' lists of priorities. Costs to organizations for employee medical coverage continue to climb, with double-digit premium increases seemingly the norm. And recent developments and uncertainty arising from the Affordable Care Act have only ratcheted up the pressure, increased executive attention to the issues and heightened the challenge that organizations are facing. Like it or not, you, as an HR leader, and your organization are probably going to spend even more time on benefits for the rest of 2013 and certainly in 2014 as the effects of the PPACA become clearer and unwind.

But in a time of uncertainty, with many benefits consultants and experts advising a "wait-and-see-what- happens" strategy, there are at least some elements or components of the complex formulas for employee benefits and healthcare costs that are not uncertain. For instance, our population -- likely reflected in your workforce - struggles with high rates of obesity and chronic but often preventable medical conditions. Often (raising my hand as an admitted culprit on this one), we don't get nearly enough exercise as we should.  Sure, the ACA might be a confusing jumble of new rules and requirements, and we don't really know what it will mean to our organizations yet, but for most of us, we can be pretty confident about a few things in this morass.

Chiefly, we know that, if the majority of our employees just did a little bit more to try and improve their health, and if a few less of them smoked, or if a few more of them bicycled to work instead of driving or did other things to get more physically active than they currently are, good things would result. Employee absenteeism would be reduced, medical costs would decrease, and people would just generally feel better and be more productive. But just because it seems kind of obvious and simple, that doesn't mean it's easy - both for HR leaders trying to get a handle on soaring costs and for individuals struggling to find the time, motivation and energy to live even just a little bit healthier.

Not surprisingly then, in the modern age of the smartphone, social networking and big data, new technologies are being designed to try and help organizations meet these needs. This is certainly true in the employee health and wellness space.  In the last few years, a number of wellness technologieshave emerged to try and help both the organization and the employee in this simple, yet difficult challenge -- to do things (and avoid doing other things), with the goal of getting healthier.

Recently, I talked with one of these solution providers, Virgin HeathMiles (yes, part of the famous Richard Branson empire), about the role of technology not only in driving behavior change, but also in increasing employee connection and engagement. Virgin HealthMiles offers organizations tools to conduct companywide fitness and wellness challenges, a portal that enables information sharing and gives employees the ability to track their progress, an ability to earn and redeem rewards for achieving goals, integration with "traditional" benefits providers (important for reasons we will cover shortly) and -- also necessary for the smartphone age -- access from any device an employee has at any time.

But for all the technology, and much of it is pretty powerful and cool, the "stickiest" part of a solution such as Virgin HealthMiles' might be the social component -- the element that makes someone who might not feel up to exercising or climbing the stairs at the office that day feel like they are not alone in their struggle. The solution is built for intra- and even inter-company contests. In fact, when I spoke with executives at Virgin they told me a fascinating story about how two clients, Timberland and Maidenform, went up against each other in a fitness challenge.

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As anyone who has tried to adhere to some kind of diet or start a new exercise program can attest, having a partner or a friend with you is a powerful incentive and motivator. If I don't get up and do my two-mile walk today, not only am I letting myself down, I am letting my colleagues, my teammates and my friends down. And that feels pretty bad.

But past all of that -- and all of the "feel-good" elements that are certainly at play here -- the case for platforms such as Virgin HealthMiles' are likely to resonate with the chief financial officer as much as they do with the director of benefits. One Virgin HealthMiles client I spoke to, a mid-size manufacturer of high-tech equipment, attributed its 2013/2012 year-over-year medical-coverage-rate hold (which is pretty unusual in this climate) almost entirely to the wellness and fitness programs it had implemented in 2012, supported by Virgin technology.

The wellness platform helped this company not only incent and encourage more healthy activities and behaviors, it also allowed it to transmit this data to its insurance carrier responsible for the actual medical coverage. The ability to "prove" the success of the programs, combined with a series of contests and challenges that really motivated employees, resulted in the rate hold for 2013, something that the benefits manager I spoke with said was unprecedented in her 10 years in the organization.

Fitness and wellness have, in many ways, been turned into smartphone-powered games, but for some smart organizations, these games are producing pretty serious results.

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE's HR Technology ® Conference and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at

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