Words by Robbie Hughes

In recent years, corporate wellness programs have undergone something of an evolutionary leap. The traditional approach to wellness was rather like an ineffective annual appraisal; an hour or two of diagnostic analysis of how you were performing, with some recommended actions that may or may not be followed up on, or escalation if very bad scores are achieved.

Then followed the prescriptive, firm-wide campaigns encouraging employees to remember to take up the next HRA they were eligible for, take the healthy eating menu offered in the canteen or gain a financial reward for completing a 5K run.

The problem is that that a generic ‘carrot and stick’ strategy doesn’t work. It’s difficult to instigate long-term behavior change, and at times, looked rather like a knee-jerk reaction to rising cost of premiums. Back in 2013, a Gallup Poll showed only 52% of Americans describe themselves as engaged with their workplace wellness scheme.

Up next came person-centered employee benefits schemes and lifestyle coaches. Successful next-generation corporate wellness programs share common traits – they think about longer-term engagement, they track personal goals that matter to employees and when they do have communal campaigns and goals, they are smarter at aligning them with their corporate culture and onsite or nearby amenities. Fitness and fashion shoe retailer Zappos, for example offers “wellness adventures,” so employees can enjoy activities like laser tag, golf or trampolining in their lunch hour – so fitness is about an outlook on life, rather than a repetitive gym session.

It’s not just the strategy behind wellness programs that’s changed but also the channels of delivery, with more employers offering company portals, virtual screening and fitness and mindfulness apps. What hasn’t been widely adopted however, is a means to link all of this together, using the same CRM principles widely used in other industries, to support a personalized journey to wellness.

Intelligent automation is a much-misunderstood resource. Often perceived as the enemy of the personal, automation has had a bad rep, and as anyone who has ever called a call center bot will tell you, sometimes justifiably so. But it can be used to deliver hyper-personalized digital interaction to bridge the gap in-between coaching sessions or wellness campaigns, and meaningfully augment human to human interaction.

Let’s take an example. A client of ours in Europe has developed their own digital algorithms to support lifestyle coaching services and improve employee monitoring in-between appointments. This allows them to look after a much larger group of employees than they could do manually, plus it’s more convenient for members. Data capture through e-forms and auto-calculated risk scores sent prior to face-to-face engagement means the health assessment can now largely focus on exploring the employee’s personal goals, as well as other important aspects of well-being.

Employee goals are then intelligently mapped to a vast database of activity sequences, and the employee is transferred to a pathway that’s dynamically tailored to their specific goal and wellness profile. For example, if they need to lose weight but also build their social confidence, they could be set a series of activities such as walking 2k without getting out of breath three times a week, but also buddied with a colleague as part of a ‘walk and talk’ lunchtime scheme.

Every so often, the employee gets a text or link to an e-form asking them whether they’ve completed their activities, how they are feeling and how much progress they think they’ve made towards their goal. If they stop filling in data or enter low scores, the system can transfer them into a call-back list so their coach will drop them a line. The key thing here is that digital engagement is not ‘dumb’, but context-driven – even when employees visit their company portal, they see information that’s relevant to where they are in their wellness journey. All of this activity combined has seen overall member satisfaction rise across the board by 60%.

So far so good. Using intelligent automation wellness providers can now support employee engagement between human touchpoints, build a richer real-time profile about their members, and of course scale their programs without draining resources. What gets even more interesting, however, is when you start to analyze personality traits and use big data in order to bring about behavior change. For example, some personality profiles may benefit from links to supplementary information to give more context to the plan, others may want less detail but the ability to switch to other personal wellness schemes or experiment with complementary services and classes. All of this can be driven through intelligent automation.

Adopting a digital pathway approach means you can capture enhanced population data about long-term employee engagement trends and health profiles. You can also compare how effective some pathways are over others, identify common personal goals and what type of plan seems more successful at achieving these, and help corporates identify where they should be directing investment to the benefit of their employees. It means wellness providers can adopt a sophisticated ‘CRM’ approach to employee health, with automated member recall and eligibility rules.

Why is this all so important? I’ll end with a quote from Toby Cosgrove, CEO of Cleveland Clinic who says: “Only private business can solve America’s epidemic of obesity, chronic disease, and runaway health care costs by investing in the health of their employees.”

If we’ re asking our employees to work longer hours and feel a deeper connection to their corporate employer and company values, then we have to build a wellness culture that nurtures individuals on a personal level and offer more say in how programs are designed. Digital strategies can play a key role in this.