Employee wellness: Bank of America, Southwest value intrinsic incentives over cash

By Aditi Pai
Kembre Roberts Southwest Kembre Roberts, Manager-People, Southwest Airlines

Employers should be less concerned about their return on investment when they consider launching an employee wellness program, according to Bank of America Senior Vice President of Employee Benefits Jim Huffman, who spoke at an event in Boston this week. Huffman and Kembre Roberts, Manager for People at Southwest Airlines, who both selected ShapeUp's employee wellness program for their employees, discussed strategies they use and challenges they have faced.

"What’s the ROI? What are you going to get back on this program?" Huffman told attendees at the 29th National Conference on Health, Productivity and Human Capital. "I’ll be the first to say it doesn’t matter what the ROI of your program is. Ask your CFO or ask your head of HR whether a connected, focused workforce is what they want. If that’s what they want to drive productivity, revenue, and customer interactions, then this is one way to get it. We don’t have to measure a three for one return on wellness, and we don’t have to measure how much we are going to get back on this Fitbit investment."

Bank of America has 235,000 employees across the globe and about 200,000 in the US. It works with at least two other digital health companies -- Teladoc and Fitbit.

"As a self insured medical plan, we have over a billion and a half dollars of spend forecasted for this year, running us anywhere between 4 to 6 percent year over year increase," Huffman said. "So when we invest in programs like this, physical activity challenges, wellness programs, we are confident it’s going to make an impact. Whether it’s financial impact or organizational impact." 

Still, Huffman said the company is still working out some kinks, in particular, the types of incentives the company can offer its employees.

"We are struggling right now with this intrinsic versus extrinsic," Huffman said. "We know that cash is king, but we know it’s not sustainable. We do not want to get on the roller coaster of having to routinely put more money in the program to keep people interested. That’s the wrong direction for us to go. With a population of over 200,000 in the US, even changing our financial incentive by $50 to $100 per participant is significant for us."

Instead of focusing on financial incentives, Bank of America has started testing intrinsic incentives in its wellness programs.  The company is conducting small focus groups to find out what’s important to employees and find out what will be a good motivator. One such incentive they came up with is a pay it forward offering. When employees get rewarded, they can choose to send a donation to Habitat for Humanity or pay into an employee relief fund, which will be used to help their teammates when they are faced with financial challenges.

Southwest Airlines is also using more creative incentives outside of just offering straight cash.

"At Southwest, something that is very important to the organization is we use our employees in commercials, we use our employees in advertisements, we use our employees on the radio," Roberts said. "We have been able to transcend that into wellness. So guess what? We have competitions to see who’s going to be on the front page cover of our website."

Southwest first started piloting employee wellness programs in 2012, built an incentive structure last year, and launched their programs this year.

Roberts explained that Southwest offers a three step program, called Wellness Rewards. The first step is that employees must get a biometric screening. The second is that they tell the company about their tobacco use, to unlock a tobacco cessation program for them. And the third is to pick a challenge or program, but only if they choose to do so.

"We have three programs we offer to our employees and we don’t force them to pick any of those programs," she said. "If they’d like to do it on their own, great. Go through the challenges. If you’ve got high glucose and high blood pressure and you and your doctor think you can [better manage] it through physical activity, do that. Don’t feel like you need health coaching or that you’ve got to do the metabolic syndrome program if that doesn’t sound fun to you. So we really let them choose."

Although Southwest has also found their employee wellness initiatives to be positive experiences -- Roberts said the social engagement that the program has created is beyond anything the company's senior leadership team ever expected so quickly -- she also found there were some challenges getting employees to use the program initially.

"Over 50 percent of employees do not check their [work] email on a monthly basis," Roberts said. "So guess where pilots and flight attendants get their information? In the galley -- peer to peer communication. For organizations like ours where email is still a challenge, like manufacturing environments, you really have to focus creative strategies, on how to get that message out in a way that makes sense to them."