Pilot project garners impressive results

TELUS takes science-based approach to employee health with wellness program
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/02/2016

Long-focused on health and wellness, TELUS is ramping up its approach with a program that includes diagnostics, health coaches and technology to encourage healthy, sustainable behaviours among employees.

“The personalized medicine space needs to embrace the technology to be able to grow this area of wellness so that people can self-manage their health in a better way and it doesn’t have to be one-on-one — it can be group, it can be digital, it can be virtual,” said Elaine Chin, chief wellness officer at TELUS, who spoke at a GoodLife Fitness Health & Wellness Leadership Summit in Toronto in November.

As part of a pilot, the company recently launched a metrics-driven Self-Health program where employees had their health profile completed. This included a health-risk assessment, physical and biochemical biometrics and having their progress tracked over 12 weeks, with support from a health coach and fellow employees.

The 266 participants first completed a symptom profiler to measure their level of presenteeism. They were then given an activity monitor to measure their steps, activity, dietary habits via food logging, and sleep.

“Our goal is to provide all TELUS employees with a personal health record as part of their wellness because they can track their own health, literally, and monitor and get results,” said Chin. “As we walk through the Self-Health pilot, we can review those specific items.”

TELUS then brought in LifeLabs to do biometric screening on participating employees, including physical attributes such as weight, height and waist circumference, and blood work for cholesterol, blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C and insulin.

Through these biometrics, the Self-Health program let participants know their risk factors around metabolic syndrome, diabetes, prediabetes and insulin resistance. The results downloaded automatically into the personal health records.

Once the blood work results came back, employees were partnered with a health coach supplied by Morneau Shepell. The coaches connected over the phone with employees in a one-hour session (with one-half of participants also having a 30-minute followup session) to discuss the results and create a personal health action plan of lifestyle changes that included sleep, nutrition and exercise routines.

One of the variables in addition to the blood work was to understand people’s lifestyles, so participants used a Fitbit Charge to track steps and calories burned, said Chin.

“Moving forward, we’re going to be agnostic to devices — we want people to be able to wear whatever they’re wearing that they like to wear.”

Nutrition was also logged, along with vigorous or moderate activity levels, and hours and quality of sleep.

“When people get heavier and overweight and not fit, there’s a higher tendency to have sleep apnea and you can infer that from seeing the results of your tracker,” she said.

The tracker automatically uploaded all the information into the Self-Health site so in one view, participants could see the questionnaire they did at the beginning, the Fitbit data points, nutrition data points, physical biometrics before and after the project; blood work before and after; and their personal health action plan.

TELUS employees also had access to a social enterprise challenge platform that allowed people to engage with each other through challenges, for prizes.

“We recognized that a lot of our team members are… millennials and they like to engage in the social environment meaning ‘How do I rate compared to somebody else?’ and… ‘I’d like to challenge my friends and let’s do it together,’” said Chin.

Employees could also create their own clubs, such as bringing lunch to work for a month or biking in the morning.

“It allows team members to come together and to encourage each other because behavioural change is difficult on your own — we need encouragement and we need to sustain behaviour for about 12 weeks in order to have a more reliable, sustainable behavioural change,” she said.


In the end, each participant averaged an increase of 2,126 steps per day or 160 kilometres over the program. They also reduced their risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression and low back pain. New health behaviours adopted included:

• walking daily

• regular exercise

• sleeping longer and better

• stress management techniques

• eating more fruits and veggies

• eating out less often

• reading nutrition labels.

Eighty-eight per cent of the participants said their Fitbit was effective in building awareness around leading an active lifestyle and getting adequate sleep. Two-thirds said the diet log was effective in helping them gain awareness and improve their personal eating habits.

They also found blood work results were important in motivating them to change their lifestyle.

On the coaching side, 84 per cent of the employees found their coach provided the information and support needed to achieve the goals of their wellness action plan, while 53 per cent found the number of interactions with their assigned coach was adequate and timely.

Two-thirds (68 per cent) of the participants said they had a very good or excellent overall experience and 85 per cent would recommend Self-Health to friends, family and other colleagues.

Some of the participants who only had one hour with the coach said they would have appreciated the 30-minute followup session enjoyed by others, said Chin. And going forward, TELUS is considering offering different types of coaching for different groups. Higher-risk groups, for example, might have more time with a coach while lower-risk people might have a more robust social challenge, so healthy people support healthy people.

“It’s sharing the resources to put the resources in the right place for the right people… it’s personalized wellness,” she said.

Investment in the pilot project cost TELUS $750 to $1,000 per participant which garnered a project ROI of about $87 per person based on the reduction of diabetes or prediabetes risk that was linked to potential returns when it came to a reduction in sick days, disability and health benefit costs, said Chin.

“We were able to reduce the team’s cardiovascular risks by almost 50 per cent (based on an increased step count over the 12-week period); we were able to improve and lower the risk of diabetes… by 35 per cent; and arthritis by 22 (per cent) and so forth; and even depression, almost at 10 per cent.”

When it comes to an employer building a wellness ROI, science-based programming is important, she said.

“Besides the idea that, yes, it’s the right thing to do, there’s always the dollars investment but also the time investment in this project, so you want to understand what’s working, what’s not, what pays off better and what doesn’t pay off, so when you have numbers, you can run the analtyics, you can see if your program is working from even a steps perspective.”

By understanding a certain number of people have metabolic syndrome, and this kind of program could reduce their risk, employers could see fewer employees taking medication with respect to hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, said Chin.

“(Wellness) is a strategic piece of the business, not only about performance but also about cost. It doesn’t mean that a company shouldn’t pay for looking after people but I always say people are really smart — just give them the tools to look after themselves, and they will.

“We believe employers have a huge role — given the fact they’re already committed to team members, why not do it in a very scientific way with an ROI so that the chief financial officer checks it off as a ‘necessary to do’ rather than a ‘likely to do?’”

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