Mobile for Wellness? Appsolutely!

By Sarah Fister Gale

Feb. 18, 2015

Image courtesy of Thinkstock.

You can’t have a wellness program without wellness apps. At least not in 2015.

“Wellness apps can be very useful for behavior change because they offer employees ease of access and privacy,” said Kristin Matthews, manager of clinical services for KGA Inc., a work life and training firm in Framingham, Massachusetts. “No one has to know you are using it, and it can provide useful data to identify patterns and triggers in your behavior.”

Fortunately, there are thousands of behavioral apps to choose from, such as recipe tools, step counters, diabetes managers, stress relievers and tools to help quit smoking. But how do you choose? With thousands of options, limited resources and the short attention span of busy employees, human resources can’t just roll out a library of wellness apps and send everyone a link.

Employers have to be thoughtful about the tools they offer and how they are presented to users, said R. Ray Wang of Constellation Research. “A lot of the success of wellness apps is determined by how good the HR team is at implementing them.”

Unlike health care, wellness is all about personal need and self-motivation, which means people have to want to use it for the program to work, and they have to be useful and motivating or — like a January gym membership — employees will be engaged for a few weeks, then move on to something else.

As with any good HR programs, wellness apps must serve a clear purpose, said Shawn LaVana, senior director of marketing for Virgin Pulse. “Employees need to know what the app is for, why they should use it, and what the benefit is.”

If you are uncertain about which apps to offer, consider the most popular choices available, like Lose It, Fooducate and My Fitness Pal, said Kristine Mullen, wellness leadership vice president for Humana. “Going with the ones that have the highest levels of registration are more likely to have mass appeal.”

Expert Approved

We asked our experts for their favorite wellness apps. Here’s what they said.

GPS for the Soul (GPS4Soul): This app measures your heart rate to indicate your “level of balance and harmony,” and offers guides based on your level of stress. Shawn LaVana of Virgin Pulse said it helps him take a minute to pause and meditate. “It gives a 60-second count down with a pulse so you know when to breathe.”

Mind Tools: This management and leadership training app offers self-skills tests, strategy tools and thousands of articles on leadership topics. Kristin Matthews of KGA Inc. often recommends it to recently promoted managers. “Many people who are promoted to management aren’t fully equipped to be leaders,” she said. “This app gives them basic tips on things like team building to time management to help them move into these roles.”

Fooducate: This nutrition app, which rates food on an A-D scale and helps users track their diet and make better choices, is a favorite of R. Ray Wang of Constellation Research. “I love the grading system on getting healthy food,” he said.

Kurbo: This app, which promotes itself as “your child’s personal health champion,” helps kids track their diet and receive coaching so they can develop healthier eating habits. “It’s less of a diet or calorie counting (tool) and more about nutrition literacy through the use of red, yellow, green designation of foods,” said Kristine Mullen of Humana.

—Sarah Fister Gale

Before rolling them out, do a test run, Matthews said. KGA’s counselors recently reviewed more than 200 wellness apps to compile a list of top 10 apps that they now suggest to clients, which includes Quit Smoking with Andrew Johnson, Snorelab and Mindshift, which helps alleviate anxiety. “We considered ease of use, whether the app works and doesn’t constantly crash, and how well it addresses the needs of the users,” she said.

Though it is important to remember that even the best app will only be useful if it is meaningful to the individual, Mullen said. “Couch to a 5K (C25K) may be great for someone who is just getting started as a runner, where Runkeeper will be more appropriate for an avid runner,” she said. The key is to meet people where they are with tools that will motivate them.

These apps should also be fun to use and challenging, Wang said. “You have to make it fun or it won’t work.”

He suggests giving employees the chance to compete with each other through leaderboards and goal setting to add a layer of camaraderie and competition. Then reward them with incentives they actually value.

“Cash prizes don’t do jack for motivation,” he said. Physical prizes and non-monetary rewards, like lunch with the CEO, and public recognition have a much bigger influence. 

What’s the Buzz?

Wang also suggests rolling out wellness app programs in staged events to create ongoing buzz throughout the year. Last year, he worked with a client who launched a wellness app with different divisions every few months beginning with the sales team in January. Only 50 of the 500 sales people initially registered, but when they rolled it out to marketing three months later, another 100 salespeople signed up, he said. “It reminded people about the program and got them excited all over again.”

Executive and associate champions are also helpful to drive engagement, Mullen said. “Leadership support for any wellness program is critical, but you can also benefit from associate advocates who promote the program from within the organization.”

Once the program is rolled out, keep up communication about success stories, and give users a place to discuss their successes, build user communities and share advice. “It’s all about driving awareness,” Mullen said.

Finally, the best wellness programs use apps to support broader initiatives, KGA’s Matthews said. “Apps are useful, but they can’t stand alone. You need a comprehensive program to support behavior change if you want them to succeed.”


Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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