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Keeping employees engaged key to corporate wellness programs

In 2007, when Danna Korn, a best-selling nutrition author and serial entrepreneur, spoke with Bryan Van Noy about his field of work -- corporate wellness -- she discovered it was all about health assessment, biometric screening and coaching. She thought it was boring and the engagement level so low, and wondered why it couldn’t be more fun.

That discussion led to them co-found Sonic Boom Wellness, a Carlsbad-based company offering corporate clients a fun, engaging and cohesive platform to involve their employees in a collegial -- sometimes competitive -- way to set and meet physical fitness and health goals.

The timing was right, since health care costs were skyrocketing, existing wellness programs were not producing expected results and companies were looking for creative ways to motivate and incentivize their work force to improve their health, become more active and eventually lower corporate health care costs.

Sonic Boom’s clients in San Diego include Kyocera (NYSE: KYO), General Atomics, Allied Health, Sycuan Casino and WD-40 (Nasdaq: WDFC). Korn and Van Noy have also signed up national clients like Kraft Foods (Nasdaq: KRFT) and their biggest client so far is Kentucky-based Catholic Health Initiative, the eight largest hospital network with 60,000 employees.

“Everyone knows they have to eat right and exercise, but finding the time and motivation is the big issue,” Korn said. “Since you are with fellow workers for so much of each day, we help you make the commitment and stay motivated.”

Korn and Van Noy created a fun fitness platform that resembles a children’s entertainment website, with the aim of encouraging people to bring out their inner child and have fun getting and keeping fit.

They offer access to this platform with pedometers for clients that want to buy them and offer it to employees, to help them keep track of their activity level.

The platform encourages employees to form their own contests within their department or between departments, bestow “caught ya being healthy” LinkedIn-style recommendations when they see a coworker walking instead of driving or making a healthy food choice, join a weight-loss warriors core group, use a health tracker app that tracks how much water they drink and what foods they eat, and participate in rewards programs for reaching individual and company-wide goals.

In recent years, health care costs have increased by 15 to 20 percent every year, and Korn’s clients come to Sonic Boom looking for ways to not just engage their staff, but also keep them motivated so the initial enthusiasm does not fizzle out.

“Health care costs are killing them and they want to get people healthier, so it will drive those costs down and they come to us to find a way to get people healthier,” Korn said.

Typical coaching programs don’t work, she said, because many men don’t want to talk on the phone with a coach about what they eat. Women might be more amenable to the idea, but it still does not change lifestyle habits, Korn said. She believes progress can be made when employees are engaged in fun, creative ways.

“Our program is a form of social networking that keeps people moving because of peer pressure and competitions. We aim for much higher participation -- 50, 60 or 80 percent participation.”

She cites the example of Toshiba America Medical Systems in Irvine, which had a more challenging work force to target. 80 percent of its 1,200 employees are men, most of whom work remotely -- and previous wellness programs did not work.

“The very first day their HR called us and said staff was having fun with it. We do custom contests with the peds, activity levels sky rocketed and one employee quit smoking, began eating right, exercising right, lost 25 percent body weight and dropped 10 dress sizes. They had lots of such examples,” Korn said. “From a high level perspective, their health care costs went down by 2 percent, while it’s been increasing for everyone else,” Korn said.

Wellness vendors like Sonic Boom are also approached sometimes when a client is looking for a morale boost. A financial management company in Los Angeles that had lost millions in client money in 2008 had to lay off a third of its staff and was battling poor morale, so it brought them in to lift people’s spirits and keep them motivated.

Holy grail of wellness

So why don’t wellness programs like Sonic Boom fizzle out after the initial enthusiasm, like others have?

“With other programs, it’s like going to an amusement park where there is only one ride -- you like Disneyland because of all the many rides and distractions, and you want to go back again,” Korn said.

“That is the holy grail of wellness. All of us in the wellness industry keep focusing on how to keep people constantly motivated and on track,” she said. “Most others don’t do stress reductions, competitions and other incentives -- we feel keeping more tools in your tool box is important.”

Major trends

The key factor driving corporate wellness programs is rising health insurance premiums, so companies are constantly looking for ways to keep insurance costs down.

But the approach has changed, switching from education to action, from preaching to motivating people to change core habits.

The carrot and stick method is also widely deployed. Companies offer to keep premiums at the same level or discount it if employees do the right things to improve their health, and dole out penalties for smoking and other unhealthy habits.

Korn is seeing a lot of companies seeking outside wellness vendors to take over for in-house coordinators, who are typically inundated with the amount of grassroots efforts they have to undertake. She said the corporate world is waking up to the fact that it actually saves them money to outsource it to a sustainable, engaging program.

Sonic Boom’s program runs from $1.75 to $5 per employee, per month, depending on the size of the company and what they want.

With more vendors latching on to the fun factor in corporate wellness, she expects there will be consolidation in the industry and fewer players in the next few years.

Meanwhile, demand for such services has increased.

“Oh my gosh, it’s booming, it’s on fire,” Korn said. “Most of our business comes from consultants and insurance brokers. It makes the insurance brokers look good when they offer our programs.”

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