Technology To Promote A Healthier Workforce

Virgin HealthMiles' web-based health incentive platform is helping some employers get workers moving.

It's open enrollment time, and employers across the U.S. are having their workers sign up for next year's healthcare benefits. This is also the time of year many employers remind their workforces that behavioral changes can positively impact health and wellness, not to mention productivity and medical expenses. Technology is aiding employee behavioral changes at some companies.

Virgin HealthMiles, a unit of Virgin Group, which also operates Virgin Atlantic Airlines offers an incentive platform that helps employers track how workers are doing in their efforts of getting or staying healthy. The web-based, software-as-a-service platform includes social networking, reporting and management tools, said Sean Forbes, president of Virgin HealthMiles.

Of the 135 employers that offer the Virgin HealthMiles incentive program to their workforces (which have a combined headcount of about 650,000 employees) most of the employers are "self-insured," meaning that rather than providing health coverage from a third-party insurance company, the employers create their own benefit offering, collecting premiums from workers and paying out claims, said Forbes.

The Virgin HealthMiles platform helps employers run incentive programs that are linked to worker's "good behavior," including exercise and achieving wellness, such as lowering blood pressure or dropping weight, said Forbes. Some Virgin HealthMiles clients provide incentives to employees of up to $2,500 in cash, gift cards or reductions in next year's health premiums for achieving health and wellness goals that are coordinated through the help of Virgin HealthMile's platform, he said.

Among clients is Protective Life, a financial services and insurance company based in Birmingham, Alabama. Protective has long had work environment promoting good health habits for its 2,300 employees, said Michele Pawlik, a registered nurse and director of Protective's health and employee assistance program services.

About half of Protective staff work in Birmingham, and others are based in other locations in the U.S. More than two years ago, Protective signed on with Virgin HealthMiles for its employee incentive program as part of a larger Protective wellness and health strategy that also include having an on-site health clinic, massage services, nutritionist and offering health education programs and health assessments, said Pawlik.

The wellness culture of Protective in general has translated into a more health-conscious workforce, yet for the most part, the jobs of most staffer are "desk-centric," admits Pawlik. But with Virgin HealthMiles, Protective Life employees are rewarded -- with cash and gift cards -- for maintaining more active lifestyles. The tools provide Protective with a way to validate that employees are indeed exercising and exhibiting other healthy behaviors.

People "tend to overestimate their physical activity and underestimate how much they eat," Pawlik said. However, with workers ability to download and electronically record their actual biometric readings and evidence of exercise, there's more accountability.

About 61% of Protective's workforce is enrolled in the Virgin Health Miles program. Participants get an UBS-enabled pedometer and personalized online health management account via a web portal to track their progress, including the number of steps walked each day.

On-site, desktop kiosks in Protective offices are available for employee to take biometric readings such as their blood pressure, weight and body fat measurements. Employees get credit for using the kiosks each month, and the points they accrue from the steps they walk, run or achieve through aerobics add up. In a 12-month period, employees can earn up to $400 in cash or choices of gift cards, which are also available via the Virgin HealthMiles platform.

While employers like Protective do not see data related to specific individuals, aggregate data reports let companies track how they're workers at large are doing.

It's too soon for Protective to calculate how much in healthcare costs the company is saving through these efforts to promote a healthier, more physically active workforce, said Pawlik.

The improved outcome for people with hypertension who lower their blood pressure or diabetics who lose weight is often long-term, such as avoiding serious health complications down the line. But with a workforce that has little turnover, the healthier habits being promoted by Protective could very well translate to healthcare cost savings for the company as well, she said.

"If I'm a diabetic and my blood sugar drops, the immediate benefit might be a reduction in the medicines I take," said Pawlik. "But long term it's about improving my health overall," she said. "The technology provides us with a means to reach out to employees," especially to those that aren't based near the company's Alabama headquarters, she said.

"Before you could never validate healthy activity, now I can," she said.

How much help (and incentive) do you think employers should provide workers in achieving and maintaining healthier life styles? Is your company utilizing technology to assist your workers' wellness? Let us know.

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