A Wellness Initiative That is Actually Fun
How many steps do you take in a day? If you're like most Americans, the answer to that question is between around 3,000. If you want to be fit and healthy, that number needs to go up. Way up. Same goes for your employees--your most important asset. But it's an ongoing challenge for everyone.
Enter Glenn Riseley, President and Founder of the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC). He wanted a way to move beyond temporarily improving fitness and "wellness" in the workplace--to encourage people to make lasting changes. GCC does this through a program where people work in teams of seven, tracking their steps through an electronic device over 16 weeks, counting each step in a virtual race around the world. I had the opportunity to interview Glenn about how to help people change and how business owners can bring about change in their employees.
How did we get to where we are today?
We've designed our environment over the past few decades so that nobody needs to move. If you look at emerging markets like China and the Middle East, they are doing what America did and they're designing cities built around cars. Rather than looking at Paris, or London or NYC that are built around people, they follow LA and Houston that developed cities dominated by freeways. As a result, globally, we're disconnecting people from physical activity. Add to this the influx of high calorie diets and you have a recipe for an obesity epidemic.
How did you decide to get involved in the obesity epidemic?
Legendary Australian athlete Herb Elliot said it's amazing how we've performed so well at the Sydney Olympics and how Australia punches above its weight at sport, yet the general population is not following suit. He made the connection between how sedentary a population is now and how hard it will be to field a globally competitive workforce in the next generation. He challenged us to apply creative thinking to find a solution.
We went to conferences and heard speaker after speaker talking about the problem. Very little thinking was going into actually solving it. When we boiled it down, the crisis is really one of personal responsibility. People expect the government to do something about the shape of the nation but ultimately it comes down to individuals taking responsibility. We set out to change that by enabling employees to measure how active they were each day and harnessing the technology on their desks. We created an online experience that gave them instant gratification in the form of a virtual journey around the world.
How does GCC help with this? Everyone wants to be fit and healthy and few people do anything about it.
The behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists we worked with made it clear that people needed to take 10,000 steps per day and maintain it for 16 weeks, so they'd create new permanent habits. Our job was to make the online journey compelling enough that they made it the whole way through. We created a fun game for adults.
I see companies using the wrong words. "Fitness," and "wellness" and "improve your BMI." Employees don't want to hear this. People don't like being told what to do. When it comes to our health, it seems we have a problem with authority.
Employees sign up because it is presented as an easy, fun, team building activity. There is no pressure. Once they are in the program they realize that in order to 'win', they don't have to be better than anybody else. They just have to be better than they used to be. People are smart and so we let them find their own ways to be more active and eat better. We don't tell them exactly what and when to eat or how to put exercise into their day." We just say, "wear this, try to figure out how to get to 10,000 steps and whether you get there or not, just punch in your numbers and see progress." Whether an employee starts taking a walk at lunch or takes the stairs instead of the elevator, they feel they have creative ownership. Which is what makes it permanent.
And how has it been working?
The benefit to business is that we partner with universities across the world so our data is analyzed independently. Wellness is too often about making people 'feel' good rather than real outcomes. We can point to data that shows business that they are reducing costs and creating more healthy, happy, productive employees. For example, there are studies that show that 41 percent less sick days are taken by GCC participants. Sixty-six percent of employees report decreases in stress levels and 54 percent of employees in the high risk category of blood pressure will move to low risk. As you'd expect employees lose literally tons of weight. Of the million people we've put through GCC, over half will have lost weight--an average of 9.9 pounds. Sixty-two percent will see their waist reduced by two belt notches or two dress sizes. Companies reduce risk factors for modern diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The difference between what we do and what others do is that we've spent the past decade figuring out how to change how employees think and feel about themselves. Only then can you change what they do. The key factor is developing healthy habits ,has to be fun. 75 percent of companies in GCC report a noticeable improvement in employee morale so it goes beyond just health. Fun is a very powerful force.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.