Sunday, October 19, 2008

American Diabetes Association: On a Mission to Improve Employee Health


The American Diabetes Association (ADA) and its sister organization, Shaping America's Health, have an organizational mission to help people live healthier, and they want that sentiment to extend to their employees.

"We wanted to help our employees improve their health styles - the healthy decisions that people make about fitness and nutrition," said Emerson Goodwin, director of communication, marketing and public affairs for Shaping America's Health. "We started off with a healthy snack program, and the feedback was very positive. Then, we looked for a way to address physical activity with a program that would get our employees moving and keep them moving."

The Right Tools for the Job

Studies have shown physically inactive employees cost employers thousands of dollars per year in medical costs and lost productivity, and that amount increases substantially if the employee is obese. Regular physical activity is key to improving employee health, reducing health care costs, increasing productivity and decreasing absenteeism and turnover.

With that in mind, in May 2007, ADA and Shaping America's Health began offering their employees the Virgin HealthMiles program, a health rewards program that helps members improve their health by living more active lives.

"When we learned of the HealthMiles program, we thought, here is a way that each employee can keep track of their activity levels and have an incentive to do even more than they did the day before," Goodwin said. "From our perspective, HealthMiles is a great alignment with our mission to empower individuals to take ownership of their health."

Through the program, ADA and Shaping America's Health employees earn miles for being active, tracking results and improving key body metrics such as blood pressure, body fat and weight. These miles translate to HealthCash that can be redeemed for gift cards at more than 50 national retailers.

"One of ADA's wellness goals is to know your numbers, and we loved that our employees could do this through HealthMiles," said Tonya Stephens, managing director of employment and employee relations at ADA. "Plus, it gives us a way to reward people for being healthy and doing healthy things."

Shaping America's Health and ADA employees can gather metrics or know their numbers through the HealthZone kiosk located in their corporate headquarters. The HealthZone features a scale, body fat indicator, blood pressure cuff and touch screen, and allows employees to easily measure and track their biometric data.

"I live a pretty active lifestyle and was intrigued by the HealthZone, particularly the body fat calculator, since my goal is to lower body fat and build muscle mass," said Sean Petrie, an ADA employee. "I also like being able to track my blood pressure since it is typically a little high. I'm hoping to use the HealthZone to see how my eating and exercise will affect it."

To track activity level, each ADA and Shaping America's Health employee on the program receives a GoZone, a pedometer with a "brain" that enables members to track steps and earn miles.

"Before I joined HealthMiles, I had become pretty much a bump on a log," said Goodwin. "I never set a goal to walk so many steps a day. I just did what I did and never kept track of it. Now with my GoZone, I can track how many steps I took today versus yesterday, and that motivates me to increase my activity."

The data from the HealthZone and GoZone automatically uploads to a personalized, password-protected Web site called the LifeZone. Here, members can view their overall health and fitness accomplishments and go shopping with the miles they've earned.

Employee Feedback

Within one month of offering the program, 71 percent of the 310 employees had activated their accounts.

"Everyone was really excited about the idea of getting rewarded for being active," said Goodwin. "They also loved the feedback. Under the old model of health management, an individual went to their doctor for some tests once a year, and that was the only feedback they received. With HealthMiles, that same individual can get information whenever they need it on their blood pressure, weight and body fat, and then make educated decisions to keep moving in the right direction."

In addition to improving employee health, enhancing productivity and reducing health care costs, employer-sponsored benefits such as the HealthMiles program can play a key role in employee satisfaction and retention. According to the fifth annual MetLife Study of Employee Benefits Trends, seven out of 10, or 72 percent, of employees surveyed said workplace benefits were a reason for joining their current employers, and 83 percent said it is a factor for remaining with them.

A Little Friendly Competition

To kick off the program, ADA and Shaping America's Health leveraged the competitive spirit of their employees. They held a 30-day step challenge where employees tracked the number of steps they took and competed to win cash prizes. More than 75 percent of employees enrolled in the HealthMiles program took part in the challenge.

"It was a mix of people: the fit and healthy and the not so fit and healthy," said Stephens. "I think it's because walking is perceived as an activity that anyone can do. Plus, everyone liked the technology."

During the challenge, employees tracked their steps each day with the GoZone pedometers and uploaded them to the LifeZone Web site, where they could not only track their progress but see where they ranked in the competition.

"I initially set what I thought was a realistic goal of 12,000 steps a day, but quickly realized that realistic wasn't going to win the challenge," said Paula Warren, an ADA employee. "There was one girl who was blowing everyone else out of the water, so I really stepped it up, trying to get in 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day."

Employees engaged in a wide variety of activities to increase their steps - walking in the morning, at lunch and in the evening; walking in place while speaking with others; and even walking around conference tables during meetings.

The competition heated up as the weeks went on. The individuals and teams who were leading the challenge kept a close eye on their standings.

"Someone would upload their steps to the LifeZone and see that they were in first place," said Petrie. "Then, a couple of minutes later, others would upload their steps, and that first person would be knocked down to third place. We'd give each other a hard time in the halls, saying things like, 'I'm going to catch up with you this week.' It was a lot of fun."

Employers have found friendly competition in the workplace can boost employee productivity. In a 2007 survey from The Creative Group, 72 percent of employers reported the level of competition among their employees was very or somewhat competitive, and 87 percent reported the level of competition in their workplaces enhances productivity significantly or somewhat.

"There was a sense of togetherness and employee camaraderie across business units," said Stephens. "And while people were having fun, they were also conducting business. Employees from different departments were talking, understanding and sharing ideas while exercising. That never would have happened before the challenge."

ADA and Shaping America's Health employees racked up 24,925,928 total steps during the challenge, some 7,357 steps per person per day, with an average of 2,383 miles earned per employee.

The top stepper was Paula Warren, with 656,513 steps. The second-place stepper walked 616,000 steps, and third place walked 517,000 steps.

"We just started our latest step challenge, and some of our employees are walking up to 10 miles a day," said Stephens. "HealthMiles has significantly boosted employee morale, and anytime people are happier, you're going to have better productivity."

The results show the program has a positive, long-term impact on activity and health. In the first 12 months, 30 percent of all HealthMiles members in the U.S. who were previously categorized as inactive became active, and 14 percent with body fat in the above recommended category moved into the healthy range. Additionally, 21 percent of members who were hypertensive or pre-hypertensive improved by at least one category.

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