Corporate wellness programs are growing steadily, and many companies are betting they will keep their costs under control. But how employers utilize technology to fit their workforces’ needs is a critical success factor. Wellness is rapidly evolving and becoming an integral part of how employers ensure maximum productivity and efficiency of their workforces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that U.S. businesses loses $225.8 billion per year to employee illness and injury.

In addition to lost productivity, overall spending on health care rose by nearly $1 trillion between 1996 and 2013. The rise of chronic, lifestyle-related diseases accounts for a significant impact. Tens of millions of workers suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes. The cost differential per employee with diabetes, for example, amounts to more than $10,000 more per year.

Making Technology Work for You and Your Employees

Given the substantial burden of chronic diseases on the workforce, there has been an increase in technology that employers can embed into their wellness programs to promote productivity and efficiency. Leading companies have recognized the need to get to the root of the problem in order to see real progress. We’ve already begun to see shifts taking place as employers prioritize the health of their workforce.

This shift is not only good for employees, but also for business, as wellness programs can provide a significant return on investment. In a well-known example of successful corporate health promotion, smoking rates among Johnson & Johnson employees dropped by more than 66 percent, and the number of employees with high blood pressure or physical inactivity fell by more than 50 percent. As a result, the company returned $2.71 for every $1 spent on the program.

Knowing Your Workforce

The first key to implementing a successful program is knowing your workforce, including their needs and preferences. For example, wellness programs must take into account potential barriers such as health literacy – the ability to make informed decisions based on one’s understanding of health information. Low health literacy is surprisingly common; the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that nearly 90 percent of adults lack proficient health literacy.

While it is not anything to be ashamed of, it is certainly something to be aware of, and reviewing tools from the AHRQ can provide a baseline for understanding the abilities of employees to manage their health. Identifying the best wellness program for your organization can be a challenge, but resources are widely available to get started. Of course, it’s vital to keep in mind the relevant laws and regulations shaping the framework for voluntary employee wellness programs, including the Affordable Care Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Other resources, such as the Johns Hopkins/Transamerica Center for Health Studies report offer a variety of useful tips on how to proceed with the creation and implementation of a variety of initiatives. With a clear goal and plan in place for your wellness program, integrating technology is the next important step. In our mobile- and data-dominated world, people are constantly on their devices, logging their every move and sharing it with their social networks.

Driving Participation

Wellness innovations are capitalizing on this new status quo to promote health engagement more than ever before. For example, technology can enable lifestyle coaches and dietitians to review employee progress towards their health goals in real time and provide remote feedback and support. This trend towards connectivity and personalization at scale is expected to continue-within the next several years, data-driven incentives for employee participation may be the norm.

Ideally, technology will not only spur active participation in a program but also help employees achieve positive health outcomes. By “gamifying” health improvement with elements like teamwork, competition and instant rewards, a wellness program can be framed for what it is: a fun way to improve your health. Technology can provide the platform for employees to work together, communicate with each other and track their progress managing their health – like measuring minutes of meditation, steps in a day, or days without junk food.

Using Evidence and Data

Following an evidence-based structure for these healthy activities – such as the CDC’s guidelines for lifestyle change – can help ensure the program has a foundation of science to support employees at risk on their way to wellness. With all of the data that technology can yield, making use of it is essential to making your program effective. Dig into your data to understand what the numbers say and why. If the information isn’t painting a cohesive picture of your workforce, or if retention seem to be trending downward, you’ll have visibility into what’s working and decision support tools to adapt your program for improved engagement.

In addition to the quantitative metrics – like healthy activities or number of employees screened to be at risk for illness – take a routine pulse of the more qualitative feedback on your program – like what your employees have to say about their experience participating. Ultimately, it’s how helpful the program is to your employees that will make healthy habits stick. Finally, selecting the right technology for a wellness program must be done within specific parameters for your organization.

Meeting Your Organization’s Needs

With platforms designed for wellness screening, health engagement, biometric tracking and more, it can be difficult to account for all of these components with a single budget. If possible, try to find technology that covers the most meaningful needs for your goals for organizational wellness. Survey your workforce’s preferences: would they be likely to use their smartphones or their wearable devices – or both – to manage their health?

Narrowing down your options can help you find the best fit for your employees and your budget. Workplace wellness programs are nearly inevitable, given the health care trends among workers, rising costs and the potential for both savings and return on investment. However, these initiatives should be carefully chosen, evidence-based, accessible for all employees, and integrated with technology to achieve the goals of a healthier workforce and lower overall health costs.

This article originally appeared in Corporate Wellness Magazine.

In an ideal scenario, corporate wellness programs will always lower health costs, enhance productivity, boost employee engagement and reduce employee absenteeism and turnover. But this state of workplace nirvana often feels out of reach. A significant barrier is the ability to motivate behavior change, which influences everything from employees’ daily health habits to their adoption of a wellness initiative. Fortunately, the field of behavioral economics offers new insights that can help address this challenge.

Unhealthy behaviors, such as physical inactivity and poor diet, have contributed to a staggering growth in lifestyle-related diseases, which can be particularly costly for employers. Type 2 diabetes, for example, affects about 30 million Americans, and another 84 million have prediabetes, a condition that increases a person’s risk for developing type 2. The total cost of these diseases tops $300 billion, including indirect costs in the form of lost work days and productive capacity.

With medical costs continuing to rise at a rate of 6 percent, and employers bearing much of the financial impact, many companies are implementing programs to reduce health risk factors and insurance premiums. Wellness offerings include weight loss initiatives, on-site screenings and vaccinations, exercise classes and gym membership reimbursement, as well as educational classes on health management, smoking cessation and stress reduction. Businesses are also leveraging technology to streamline and scale programs across their workforce, putting resources like fitness trackers or health management tools directly into their employees’ hands.

There is a veritable healthy buffet of options. So, how do you know which ones to choose? And how do you make them work for you? Organizations vary in terms of their wellness objectives, workplace environments and workforce demographics, but they can generally move employee well-being in the right direction by aiming for a mix of traditional programs and emerging methods and by taking a cue from behavioral economics.

Making workplace wellness work for your teams

The field of behavioral economics combines psychology and economics to explore how individuals actually behave, as opposed to how they would behave if they were perfectly rational, with unlimited willpower, and solely acting out of self-interest. It considers how people are influenced by the framing of information, their emotions, their identity and their environment.

Behavioral economics sheds light on the drivers behind people’s lifestyle choices, such as what to eat and whether to exercise. These insights can inform how we engage and motivate employees to make healthier choices, and in turn, how to make those healthy choices become healthy habits. And since the efficacy of workplace wellness depends largely upon employee participation rates, concepts from behavioral economics can go a long way towards incentivizing the adoption of a wellness program and ensuring its sustainability.

Framing health engagement as a positive experience

The framing of messages has a significant impact on people’s choices. Individuals make decisions in part based on how they perceive that information. Studies have revealed that the value of an objectively neutral experience can be interpreted differently depending on the way it is positioned.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted an experiment in which he told a class of students he would read poetry aloud to them. Half of the students were asked whether they would be willing to pay $10 to listen to the poetry recitation; the other half were asked whether they would accept compensation of $10 to listen.

The result? Students who received the positive frame were willing to pay, while those who received the negative frame wanted to be paid. Both groups indicated that for a longer reading, a greater sum of money should be paid. But the framing of the experience determined who should be compensated.

We see the impact of framing in lifestyle choices as well. Research suggests that two separate cognitive systems control our judgment. Another behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman, describes these systems as fast thinking (emotional) and slow thinking (rational). Thought processes in the former system tend to be automatic, intuitive and impulsive. By contrast, thought processes in the latter system tend to be deliberate, reflective and effortful.

Most of our actions, like what we eat, are often governed by fast thinking. The advertising industry adroitly targets fast thinking with emotional appeals and colorful campaigns to sell products like soda and junk food. But many public health messages are framed through a lens of statistics, data, charts and warnings.

In a study, Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D, analyzed how for-profit fitness companies promote healthy behavior through a positive frame (“Get Game! Have Fun”), whereas public health authorities tend to employ a frame of obligation (“Regular physical activity is important for good health”). According to Zimmerman, shifts in message framing may fundamentally alter our understanding of an activity from a burdensome duty to a rewarding experience.

These studies tell us that health messages should emphasize personal achievement, social interaction and fun. Corporate wellness programs should target fast thinking with positive framing and methods such as colorful graphics, humor, stories, games and instant gratification through rewards.

Living for the present

People tend to place a higher value on the present, discounting the impact of future costs and benefits. For example, the fun of enjoying a double cheeseburger is now, while the adverse effects on one’s health come later.  This mentality also works against prevention efforts: flossing now might help avoid an unpleasant dentist visit, but not until sometime in the future. When time separates the costs and benefits from a behavior, lifestyle change becomes difficult.

The effects of financial incentives on weight loss were analyzed in one study where participants who met their goals became eligible for daily lottery prizes, with frequent small prizes and occasional large rewards. After four months, the incentive group had lost more than three times more weight than the control group (14 lb vs. 4 lb).

Workplace programs should bring the costs and benefits of lifestyle change closer together to counter the impact of “future discounting.” Providing instant rewards and frequent positive feedback can be helpful, as can highlighting the short-term benefits of healthy behaviors, such as improved energy levels, instead of longer-term benefits, such as reduced risk for diabetes.

Sharing the wellness

Behavioral economics models assume that people are motivated by more than pure self-interest. Altruism is an important motivator behind health-related behaviors, such as blood and organ donation, as well as many group- and peer-based interventions. In addition, incentives benefiting our friends can be several times more effective than standard, individually targeted incentives.

Workplace wellness programs can harness these concepts by enabling interaction and peer support among members in groups. Social network incentives, in which group members benefit from an individual’s efforts, and altruistic rewards, such as rewarding efforts with gifts that benefit a local charity, can motivate participants to continue their engagement in a program. In effect, teamwork, health promotion and corporate social responsibility can mutually reinforce one another to the benefit of an organization, its employees and society.

Adapting to employees

Programs to raise awareness and promote well-being must meet the needs and preferences of the workforce. In particular, wellness programs must take into account potential barriers such as health literacy – the ability to make informed decisions based on one’s understanding of health information.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that nearly 90 percent of adults lack proficient health literacy. Low health literacy is associated with higher rates of chronic conditions, more frequent preventable hospital visits, and less use of preventive services. Each of these scenarios contributes to higher health care costs.

Programs that equip people of all health literacy levels with the knowledge and skills to manage their health can help employees change behaviors and avoid costly complications. By removing barriers to engagement in a wellness program, employers can increase participation and efficacy across the workforce.

Tracking success

The returns of wellness initiatives are evident in a healthier and happier workforce and can be measured in a variety of ways. Employers can see direct savings in the form of lower health costs as well as productivity gains. Lowering the risks of lifestyle-related disease and stress-related burnout can reduce absenteeism, presenteeism and, in the most serious cases, employee turnover. With regular evaluation of wellness programs, employers can also identify gaps and plan new strategies or interventions to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Technology also has a role to play in measuring success. For example, giving employees access to mobile applications and web-based programs can both engage them and let them monitor their progress on the way to wellness. Putting the power of information directly into the hands of the workforce can encourage them to more actively manage and track their health status over time.

Ultimately, corporate wellness starts with your employees, and knowing them is the key to success for any initiative. Applying concepts from behavioral economics can help motivate them towards healthy habits and away from the signs of lifestyle disease and burnout. And with the right programs and tools in place, they can feel empowered on their journey to better health and wellness.

This article originally appeared in Human Resource Executive.

Some business leaders explain that “being good is good for business,” a kind of corporate karma if you like. As I understand it, being good as a business generates value for shareholders and stakeholders by improving an organization’s social impact. Being good as a business is also good for employee engagement and productivity.

As a doctor, I can tell you that corporate social responsibility (CSR) aligns with models in behavioral economics that assume people are motivated by more than “pure” self-interest. This is where the idea of combining your CSR program with your employee health and wellbeing program comes to life, in modern science.

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In last week’s post, I covered how the more emotional, “fast-thinking” part of our brains governs our lifestyle choices. One reason for this is that our cognitive capacity has limits, so when we’re tired, stressed or multitasking, we tend to outsource decision-making about lifestyle choices to our more impulsive, emotional brain – often with poor results.

With an average of 200 decisions about meals per day, these choices add up over weeks and months and lead to unhealthy habits that can cause longer-term illnesses, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

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In my last post I shared one of the keys to workplace wellness: how we frame messages about health. This insight is largely owed to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who suggests that many of our lifestyle choices are governed by the more emotional “fast-thinking” part of our brains.

One reason for this is that our cognitive capacity has limits. These limits have less to do with our ability to know everything (a feat many of us accomplished as teenagers), and more to do with the mental exertion required to process all of the information for the decisions and tasks we face in a typical day.

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