Iris Tarou always enjoyed fitness and healthy living, but it was initially a hobby while she started a career in television journalism. After deciding TV news wasn’t the right fit for her, Iris pursued a new adventure and interviewed for a position at a small wellness organization, where she discovered her passion for corporate wellness. Eight years later, as the Director of Wellness Program Services at Health Advocate, she works with her team to help organizations create unique, customized wellness programs to meet the needs of their employees. She also co-owns and manages a Lindy Hop/swing dance studio in San Francisco, California, helping people find another fun and exciting way to be active and fit.
I received my Bachelor’s degree in Communications from California State University Chico in 2005, but I began my career in health and wellness when I joined Health Advocate in 2009. Although my degree is in a different field, it has been instrumental throughout my health promotion career as communication skills are critical to connecting with people and engaging them in their health. Also, developing relationships with experienced mentors has been invaluable to help me learn more about this industry. By participating with organizations like WELCOA, attending industry events and conferences, and working with my clients, I’m constantly learning in the field and continuing to hone my skills.
One of the biggest hurdles organizations often face with regards to wellness initiatives is engaging employees in programs. Even the best designed programs can’t make an impact if people do not participate. In order to boost engagement and help our clients see results, I’ve made it a priority for our team of Wellness Program Consultants to encourage clients to incorporate team challenges into their wellness programs, as well as consider other initiatives that go above and beyond. Not only do challenges increase participation, but they also positively impact culture and add another element of fun into the program. Over the last few years, we have created a number of ready-to-go challenges that organizations could quickly and easily launch, but we also work with groups to customize challenges to fit the unique needs of their specific workforce.
As an example, we worked with a national insurance company to begin adding challenges and gamification to their existing program. To raise awareness of the new challenge opportunities, the company handed out t-shirts, water bottles, and pedometers, as well as sent weekly emails with additional information about the challenge. The challenge encouraged participants to increase their daily steps and compete in teams to get the most steps. To make it as easy as possible, participants could use the device of their choice to track their steps and sync it with the program website to determine the leaders.
Participation and engagement in the organization’s wellness program jumped dramatically due to the addition of the challenges, and there was a very positive culture shift. Nearly 40 percent of employees participated in the first challenge, logging a total of more than 382 million steps (181,132 miles!!). Following this challenge, we also saw an increase in engagement in other wellness workshops completed and activity tracking on the wellness program website.
WELCOA’s Benchmarks are a key part of my team’s conversations with clients, especially during program implementation and annual planning. When results indicate stellar engagement, we reference the benchmarks and recognize which ones impacted the success. When we’d like to improve program engagement, we make recommendations on which benchmarks to focus on moving forward. As in the case of the insurance company mentioned, this organization had an incentive program already in place which included completing a Health Risk Assessment and biometric screening. When reviewing their data, we recognized that their population’s physical activity was low and that employee perception of the wellness program could be improved. By evaluating past outcomes, we were able to determine that introducing the challenge would be an appropriate intervention that would also help to create a supportive environment.
As another example, we helped a media organization of more than 1,600 employees create a holistic, well-rounded wellness program to motivate employees to take action to improve their health. While they have always enjoyed CEO support for initiatives, they didn’t always have the data to drive health efforts or an outcomes-based program. When the organization initially launched their wellness program in 2014, they were incenting members to be tobacco free and to complete the Personal Health Profile. While this was a good start, they were only looking at self-reported data.
After launching their first challenge in 2015, we worked with them to raise the bar even further this year by expanding incentive requirements to include a biometric screening, utilizing the outcomes data to determine their next steps.
As demonstrated in both of these examples, by considering the Benchmarks as a guide, we were able to help organizations boost program participation and create a supportive environment where data drives the program but employee well-being remains the focus.
I credit my mentors with helping to guide me when I first came into this industry, and now I try to pay it forward by serving as a leader and mentor to others. Currently, I manage a team of eight full-time Wellness Program Consultants, who work with Health Advocate’s clients to develop, implement and manage wellness programs for more than 200 organizations across the country. Having been in that role previously, I am now dedicated to helping my team create successful relationships with clients to drive engagement in wellness programs. Our clients look to us as the experts in the field, so I encourage my team to utilize as many resources as they can, such as networking groups, industry events, and more, to keep learning and growing as a professional.
Outside of the office, I am constantly active and encourage my team to do the same. In the past, I’ve coached outdoor boot camp classes, and I now manage and teach at a Lindy Hop dance studio. It’s so important to find something you’re passionate about to stay motivated.
Time and experience have shown me that a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness is not effective; each organization and each individual have different preferences and needs. Along with my team, we have worked with clients to creative innovative, unique programs to meet the specific needs of their workforce and customize our services to work for a variety of populations. Beyond our own services, we also talk with clients about their specific workforce, helping them create wraparound initiatives that build on our services to further cultivate a culture of wellness and encourage employees to engage, such as team challenges, healthy potlucks or salad bar days, wellness committees and champions, and more. This approach has boosted both individual success for our participants and overall utilization of our services – we saw interactions with our wellness program more than double from 2015 to 2016, and participants exercised nearly 20 million more minutes and took an extra 10 billion steps.
I think technology is both the biggest threat and biggest opportunity to the health promotion industry. As new wellness-focused apps, devices and other tech-driven gadgets continue to emerge, it’s tempting to completely move in that direction. However, we can’t forget the importance of the human touch. Technology can help to initially engage and encourage people to start on their wellness journey, but the support of other people is critical to create long-term behavior change. We need to be cognizant of balancing these approaches in order to realize the opportunities of technology and avoid potential pitfalls.
To address this and continue moving our industry forward, I am working with my team to think outside the box when it comes to wellness. We are integrating wellness with other types of programs to have a bigger impact and provide more touchpoints with participants. By seamlessly connecting wellness with disease management, employee assistance, and other programs, and offering incentives for non-traditional activities, we have the opportunity to more effectively engage people and help them reach their goals.