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Paychex finds right motivation in social wellness tool

Payroll provider syncs ShapeUp social incentives with activity trackers like Fitbit for proven health benefits.

LAS VEGAS -- Contagiousness is usually bad, especially in this year of Ebola, unless it's healthy habits that are being passed from person to person. Payroll provider Paychex says that's exactly what ShapeUp social wellness software has done for its employees.

The company, based in Rochester, New York, has long had a wellness program that includes such standard offerings as tobacco cessation, free screenings and online health assessments. A year and a half ago, Paychex began a partnership with ShapeUp to invigorate it with social wellness, mobile and gamification technology.

"We had a number of different aspects to our wellness program that were cumbersome, both for employees and for the HR team that was adminstrating it," said Laurie Zaucha, Paychex vice president of human resources and organizational development, in an interview at the HR Technology Conference & Exposition held here recently. "In partnering with ShapeUp, it has allowed us to provide easy access to our employees through a mobile device. They can get to the ShapeUp platform on their phone or their iPad." Workers who have activity trackers -- Zaucha's is a Fitbit Flex -- can upload their daily steps, for example, directly to the ShapeUp Paychex site.

The plan was to leverage social networks to inspire healthy behavior and streamline administration, including tracking of incentives, in one central place, according to a presentation Zaucha gave at the conference. Employees would feel empowered to recruit one another, and games and other fun challenges would make wellness cool.

The effort appears to be succeeding. Statistics show modest but steady improvement in employee health, and testimonials aren't hard to come by.

"It's become contagious," said Chris Muller, a marketing manager working the Paychex booth. "My wife has taken up running since I started. My in-laws have since gotten Fitbits. It all came from -- when I trace it back -- this program."

Paychex management sees it as win-win. "We spend a lot of money on medical care for our employees, and so healthier employees, since we're self-insured, means that that cost, hopefully, is positively impacted," Zaucha said. "But it's also helped from a culture and values perspective. We've got employees who are energized. I believe that leads to higher levels of engagement and higher levels of productivity."

Social wellness: Shape of things to come?

Finding the right social wellness technology was crucial, according to Jake Flaitz, the company's director of benefits. "If wellness is drudgery, not too many people want to do things that are painful and boring," he said. "So we put a real premium on trying to find something that would really engage our employees and make it fun. ShapeUp has done that."

It's become contagious. My wife has taken up running since I started. My in-laws have since gotten Fitbits.
Chris MullerPaychex marketing manager

"You can think of the ShapeUp platform like a Facebook for health," said Dr. Rajiv Kumar, president and CEO of the software vendor, which is based in Providence, Rhode Island, and Zaucha's co-presenter at the conference. "It's a social network that's designed to bring people together with their friends -- in this case, with their colleagues -- to support each other, motivate each other [and] hold each other accountable."

ShapeUp syncs with nearly 100 wireless activity-tracking devices -- besides Fitbit and its competitors, they include wireless weight scales and blood pressure cuffs, according to Kumar. "While you do the important work of changing your behavior and exercising and eating healthy, these tools and apps and devices track your data, bring them to the platform, and allow you to get feedback, allow you to share them with your colleagues, and even allow you to earn rewards for changing your behavior."

But changing any behavior is hard, especially when it comes to health, he said. "When we try to do those things alone, we're likely to fail -- to fall off the wagon." Altering the social environment by encouraging people to cheer each other on and form teams "really starts to create a buzz in the workplace. It starts to create culture change, and ultimately that's what's designed to help people sustain their behavior change."

To get started, Paychex employees download a mobile app, set up their activity-tracking device, complete a profile and connect online with colleagues. Then they step up and join healthy challenges, such as a certain number of gym visits, setting and tracking personal goals and comparing them with those of the people in their network. They can earn social and financial rewards -- including social media "badges" and Amazon gift cards -- for walking 10,000 steps a day or reaching bigger milestones.

The individual and team challenges have fostered camaraderie, teamwork and healthy, fun competition across the company, Zaucha said. "There was one weeklong challenge to be a vegetarian for a week. There were employees that were struggling with that. There were others that were offering recipes. It was just a fun way to introduce the social media aspect to wellness."

Weighing in

Zaucha said implementing ShapeUp was easy and intuitive, and hiccups were resolved quickly. "We had a lot of folks hitting the site," added Flaitz. "There was a lot of activity coming their way that probably is more than you see with most companies" -- more than 2,000 registrations in the first 24 hours, he said.

Participation and completion rates for six healthy challenges in the past year and a half ranged between 2,500 and 5,000 employees, roughly a third of the company's workforce.

In exit surveys, 64% reported reduced stress and improvement in mental well-being. Nearly as many said they had a stronger connection to their colleagues and had more energy at work.

To get another view of the progress, StayWell Health Management, a Salt Lake City-based consultancy specializing in employee engagement in wellness initiatives, analyzed 2012 and 2013 data from Paychex. It found that participants in the first two ShapeUp challenges, which took place in 2013, had markedly better exercise, stress and blood-pressure rates than nonparticipants. In addition, "presenteeism" -- going to work sick, which Paychex correlates with poor productivity -- declined from 7.6% to 6.8% for participants while rising slightly for nonparticipants.

Although the sometimes troubling effects of social media have been well documented, Zaucha said she has observed no negative impacts on her workforce. "The teamwork and camaraderie that it's driven has been really remarkable," she said. "It's helped to change our culture."

The cultural change is infiltrating some unusual places, including one recent conference for top-performing salespeople. "On the second-to-last day of the conference, there was a 5K race, and there were 300, 400 sales reps that got up for a race at 9 o'clock in the morning," Zaucha said. "That had never happened before."

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Nice use of technology and basic smarts. Everyone wins with this approach. Consumers live better and Paychex sees more paychecks. Think how much better we'd all be if every business were clever enough to invest in their customers.