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Putting Wellness Wisdom On Its Head

Wellness program provider CEO calls traditional approaches 'boring,' incentives unnecessary 'bribery' and health risk assessments 'dangerous'

By Kelley M. Butler - EmployeeBenefit News
June 15, 2011

I've never met Danna Korn, but after spending just 25 minutes speaking with her, I believe her company - wellness program vendor Sonic Boom, in Carlsbad, Calif. - is aptly named. Recalling from middle school science that a sonic boom is the thunderous sound created from shock waves when an object is moving faster than the speed of sound, Korn's approach to wellness and her views on traditional programs likely will send shock waves through the industry.

Since co-founding Sonic Boom, Korn - serving as CEO and chief motivational officer - has worked to turn the traditional approach to workplace wellness, which she terms "old school," on its head and encourage employers to embrace a focus on greater sustainability and changing employees' daily health behaviors.

Although the movement may not yet be moving faster than the speed of sound, Korn was undaunted when she recently spoke with EBN about Sonic Boom and why she feels the company's method will yield employers better results than current popular wellness models.

EBN: What's the difference between the "old-school" and "new-school" approach to wellness?

Korn: Wellness is still relatively new, and five or 10 years ago, it was really progressive [for employers] to be doing biometrics [screenings] and health coaching. But it's not working because people aren't participating, and if people aren't participating, you're not going to see any results. And the reason they're not participating is because, frankly, it's kind of boring. So, they usually have incentives tied to it, so even if [employees] do participate, you're getting participation for all the wrong reasons.

Another problem with the old-school thinking [is that] HRAs and biometric screenings don't change daily behavior. It may or may not be a wake-up call, but it won't change daily behavior. Even coaching only affects [behavior change] in women, and only in about 4% to 10%. That's dismal, especially because wellness programs get sold on a [per employee per month] basis. So, to only get 4% to 10% participation is horrific.

We decided that rather than focus on those old-school things, we'd focus on what would change daily behaviors. So, we do daily interactions with a daily challenge; and we feel it's really important to make [wellness] sustainable and engaging, so it's got to be fun - that's a big key for us. New school wellness is really about being like kids. Kids on the playground are playing and getting healthy at the same time, but their primary motivator is, "Let's go have some fun." That's what we've tried to do - make wellness fun so people want to participate and do it with their friends. That way, it goes viral.

EBN: What is it about the social media aspect of the program that makes it so attractive to participants?

Korn: I think it's mostly that they're having fun and want others to have fun with them. If you're just watching your own activity, that's good - it's important to track your daily activity. But when you start calling others out, especially with competition, the activity levels skyrocket because there's accountability and motivation.

If I told you, "Go do as many pushups as you can today," you're going to do however many you feel like doing. But if I sit you down next to someone else and say, "On your mark, get set, go!" you'll push yourself far harder than you would if you were on your own.

EBN: I've heard different theories on how to engage employees in wellness with incentives. Some people say, "Cash works," while others say incentives make participants focus on the money, rather than the behaviors you want them to adopt. What would you say?

Korn: We feel the stronger your program, the less you need to spend on incentives. We have some clients who spend absolutely nothing on incentives.

We're also adamantly against using cash and gift cards, because people can easily go out and spend it on donuts and cigarettes and forget how or why they earned it. We feel more strongly about trophy-value prizes; people put that $4 water bottle on their desk and [co-workers say], "Whoa, you must have gotten to level Mock 1 on Sonic Boom!" There's recognition that's far more effective than bribery.

A lot of our competitors are bribing people to take part in what are often just one-time events, and again they aren't changing daily habits. And with [health risk assessments], you're paying people to take an HRA, but are they being honest? So, we think that incentives with HRAs can actually be downright dangerous.

EBN: It's interesting that you mentioned HRAs, because [in his March column, EBN Contributing Editor Andrew Sykes] said HRAs aren't really worth what employers are paying for them, because employees know the answers they're supposed to give and even people who are doing healthy behaviors may not be doing them to extent they think they are.

Korn: Exactly. We would argue that not only are HRAs unnecessary, but they can actually be dangerous, because by giving an answer that you know is the "right" answer, but isn't a truthful answer, you get this great wellness report and think, "Wow, I'm really in great shape! I don't need to make any changes in my lifestyle." It gives a completely false sense of health status, both on an individual and on an aggregate level.

EBN: This approach seems intuitive - that it would be easier to engage employees around having fun than incenting them to have a finger stick for a blood draw. It also seems administratively easier and less expensive. So, then, why aren't more people doing wellness your way?

Korn: I just think they're not quite there yet. There are some people who just aren't going to get out of that old-school mentality; they're just stuck in the world where wellness is HRAs, biometrics and coaching, and it's hard to get them out.

But [our way] is easier to engage people; that's why we get 60% engagement, rather than that 4% to 10%.

EBN: What happens, though, when the fun and excitement wears off? What kind of sustainability can you achieve?

Korn: Sustainability is always the biggest challenge with any wellness program. You really have to have a multifaceted approach. Even the ones that call themselves progressive, only focusing on physical activity, even those are just one-trick ponies and people get bored with them.

We've created a multifaceted approach so that if people get bored with one part of our program they can move to another and then come back. Also, rolling [a program] out in waves, so [employers] can mix it up and keep it fresh.

We're not against biometrics and coaching - a lot of our clients use those in a complementary fashion with our program. So, even though we think HRAs might be dangerous, we're not saying [traditional wellness] is bad, just that it's not very progressive, and it's time for people to start looking at something that's more engaging and sustainable.