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Shape Up The Nation (Case Study): How Social Networking works for a Corporate Wellness Program

It’s annual enrollment time, and companies — even mine — are looking for ways to encourage employees to participate in a corporate wellness program that promotes a healthy lifestyle, as it can ultimately mean reduced benefits costs for a company (e.g., smoking cessation, weight management). However, in these budget-conscious times, cost effective tactics are essential. If there was ever time that social media could be leveraged within corporate culture, a social network to drive wellness participation is almost certainly a no brainer — easy to implement, cost effective, with potential for much higher participation than traditional wellness programs.

Imagine my delight when I came across this timely article on using social networking to build participation. See below.

Source: Employers use social networking to maximize wellness program participation, Employee Benefit News

In the wellness industry today, incentives are all the rage. Frustrated by low participation in unpopular wellness programs, employers have resorted to offering golden carrots – often valued up to $1,000 per year – to get employees to engage. But why pay people to lose weight, exercise and eat healthier when all that’s really needed to boost participation is peer-to-peer engagement?

Shape Up The Nation, whose wellness platform is designed to connect employees of all fitness levels with others who share similar interests, has pioneered this innovative approach. The company’s online system enables employees to invite, challenge, track and motivate each other to achieve specific goals through teamwork, friendly competition, and accountability.

“We’re changing the way employers think about wellness programs,” explains Rajiv Kumar, Shape Up The Nation’s managing partner. “Instead of paying people to participate in programs they don’t like, we’ve designed effective interventions that are fun, engaging and encourage them to work together with their friends.”

Money doesn’t always talk.

Shape Up The Nation challenges the notion that financial incentives are necessary to change employee behavior, saying it’s not only a costly short-term fix, but may set a dangerous precedent by creating an entitlement mentality.

Employers also must worry about the message they are sending. Paying employees to lose weight, for example, diminishes the true importance of such an effort. When a company offers $500 to fill out a health risk assessment, employees begin to wonder how painful the experience must be in order to warrant that level of compensation. Furthermore, employers risk limiting the benefits of wellness programs by spending excessively on incentives.

Most analyses show companies that invest in wellness programs can save several hundred dollars per employee in health care costs. One study published last year in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine documented an annual savings of $176 per wellness program participant at health insurer Highmark. If companies spend more than they save, they eliminate their return-on-investment.

It’s a message that surely will resonate loud and clear at a time when employers are hard pressed for cash and trying to control the cost of wellness programs. Instead of focusing on compensation for participation, Shape Up The Nation encourages employers to see the wellness program itself as the incentive.

High participation

As the hundreds of employers who use Shape Up The Nation have learned, the peer-to-peer engagement model creates powerful social incentives for people to participate. Employees are much more likely to join a wellness program when invited by a colleague.

“Instead of singling people out, we are uniting them with the message that all employees share a responsibility for promoting a healthy company culture and, therefore, we must work together,” Kumar says.

Employers that have instituted the Shape Up The Nation program report higher levels of engagement than they have ever seen – up to 50% without incentives. That compares with less than 10% in many online fitness tracking programs and as low as 1% for traditional on-site programs.

A grassroots, peer-to-peer approach to wellness program recruitment also attracts first-timers. At CVS Caremark distribution centers, 84% of participants in Shape Up The Nation reported that it was their first time participating in a wellness program at the company.

Proven outcomes

Kumar and a team of researchers authored a study, published in last May’s issue of the medical journal Obesity, that documented the outcomes of participants in their social networking program. The study found that the average participant reduced body mass index (BMI) by 1.2 points during the first 12 weeks of the program.

To understand the implications of that weight loss on a company’s bottom line, consider a study by Dee Edington, Ph.D., a professor of movement science at the University of Michigan, showing a $202.30 annual savings in employee health claims and pharmaceutical costs for every one point reduction in BMI. That excludes, of course, the significant savings that employers see from increased productivity, morale and retention, and decreased absenteeism, presenteeism and workers’ compensation.

Research on health behaviors spreading within social networks has been a hot topic over the past few years. One prominent Harvard physician, Nicholas Christakis, has published a series of papers examining how health spreads among people who know each other.

Christakis found that when one person quits smoking, his friends and colleagues are more likely to do so as well. When someone loses weight, the individuals in her social network have an increased probability of losing weight, too. Christakis notes that wellness interventions that provide peer support within a social network are more successful than those that do not.

“People are connected – and so their health is connected,” he wrote.

Source: Employers use social networking to maximize wellness program participation, Employee Benefit News

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