• The Gamification of Wellness

    Nov 01, 2012

    An interview with Bryce Williams


    A health-conscious health plan threw out the employee wellness programs that were not working and started over. Employee activity levels have increased dramatically-and the plan is saving $5 million in medical costs and lost productivity each year.



    A few years ago, Blue Shield of California looked at itself in the mirror and found more flab than it wanted to see. Like most major employers, the San Francisco-based health plan offered employee wellness programs but the results were not exactly brag-worthy.

    "We realized that we needed to practice what we preach rather than teach what we needed to learn," says Bryce Williams, the exercise physiologist recruited to pump up the program. "And we recognized that the best-in-class solutions around wellness and population health just weren't getting the job done."

    Williams directs Blue Shield's Wellvolution program, which redesigned its employee wellness offerings to meet four criteria: Make wellness rewarding, make it easy, make it social, and make it fun.

    The goal is to help employees incorporate healthy habits into their regular lives, rather than to impose stressful add-ons that feel like extra work. Walking workstations, for example, remove the "should I work or should I walk?" decision. A well-designed worksite cafeteria makes healthy food choices easy.

    What Works?

    Because social media has become ubiquitous in people's lives, Wellvolution introduced a social network that allows Blue Shield staff members to form teams to work on fitness goals, challenge one another, and support each other through online interaction. Almost immediately, it became the company's most popular wellness program, attracting 40 percent of employees in its first year.

    Participation is viral-employees recruit their workplace friends to join-and retention is high, compared with most wellness programs, at more than 50 percent. That is generally double the retention rate for wellness programs, Williams says.

    Best of all, participants are pushing themselves to increase their activity levels. The percentage of teams that are averaging more than 10,000 steps a day more than doubled in the past year, and the highest performing teams are now averaging 18,000 steps a day. "Not only is the program keeping people engaged, but for some reason-and I believe it's that social cohesion- it's also encouraging them to do more," Williams says.

    Based on that success, Wellvolution has introduced two more social media initiatives-a daily health challenge and a digital health management platform.

    The results of its new approach? A 50 percent decrease in sedentary behavior, and a 50 percent decrease in smoking prevalence (just 6 percent of the company's workers smoke). Plus, only 10 percent of the workers have high blood pressure, down from 25 percent.

    What Went Away?

    Under Williams' leadership, Wellvolution scrapped some standard wellness offerings, including telephonic health coaching and certain cash incentives to reward behavior change. "Bribing people is not a sustainable model for wellness," he says.

    The "gamification" of wellness is not frivolous, but rather reflects the reality of people's lives. "Social gaming sounds futuristic when compared to where wellness programs are today, but it's actually not. This is what social utilities like Farmville and Words with Friends are all about," he says. "If you're not meeting people where they are, all you're doing is bringing horse-and-buggy solutions to a Maserati marketplace, and you won't succeed."

    Blue Shield expects a 3:1 ROI for its wellness program-and gets it, he says. The company has seen its annual medical and lost-productivity costs drop by $5 million since the wellness program was overhauled nearly four years ago.

    "If you're doing it right, people will want to engage with you and stick with you. They will make better choices, their health will get better, and the financials are an outgrowth of all that," Williams says.

    Bryce Williams is director, Wellvolution, Blue Shield of California, San Francisco (bryce.williams@blueshieldca.com).