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Change employees’ health habits — one click at a time

01/24/2012

When employees hunch over keyboards all day, all the motivational posters in all the break rooms of the world won’t improve their health.

Solution: Deliver practical, actionable advice directly into employees’ e-mail in-boxes.

Case study: Health care giant Kaiser Permanente—a leader in designing wellness programs for other organizations—created an innovative e-mail campaign to see whether it could get its own employees to eat better and exercise more.

For 16 weeks, Kaiser sent weekly e-mails suggesting small, practical, individually tailored goals. Example: Eat fruit for a snack three times a week, walk for 10 minutes a day at lunchtime or walk to the store instead of driving. The e-mails were tailored to employees’ individual life situations (e.g., children at home, busy schedules, etc.).

The e-mails linked to a personal home page with tips for achieving the small-step goals the respondent had selected, plus ways to track progress. Reminder messages were sent between each message.

The results: The study, which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that employees who received the messages significantly improved their health, compared to a control group that didn’t get the e-mails.

Participants were more physically active, ate more fruits and vegetables, and reduced their intake of saturated fats.

The message: “E-mail intervention programs are a very cost-effective way to get healthy,” says Barbara Sternfeld, the Kaiser scientist who headed the study. “A tailored e-mail program includes all the things that behavioral scientists have said for years about changing behavior: small goals tailored for the individual, reinforcement and tracking, but delivered in a mass, cost-effective way.”

Advice: According to Allyson Faist, CEO of the MEDeCOACH e-wellness firm, your electronic health communication program should be:

  • Customized: Employees are more likely to pay attention to wellness messages that speak directly to their personal circumstances. Base your program on a preliminary assessment that identifies the health issues each employee faces.
  • Simple to use: Go for quick-hit messages that provide information employees can easily act on. Kaiser Permanente didn’t suggest taking a walk “sometime.” It urged employees to take a walk today, during lunchtime.
  • Engaging: Your goal is to motivate employees to act. Use language that inspires confidence. Respect employees’ judgment. Applaud successes!
  • Private: Employees need to know that their personal medical information will be kept confidential.