Case study: Health contest encourages big losses

Karen Principato | March 7, 2011 Benefits Canada

Things to do at work today: meet with boss; complete weekly project; and apply to be a contestant in Extreme Health Makeover contest.

If you are an employee of BC Hydro, this could be your to-do list at work today. Item No. 3 has been on the list—and minds—of many BC Hydro employees since this innovative employer unveiled its Extreme Health Makeover Contest in 2009.

Since the contest’s inception more than 600 employees have applied to be participants in this annual challenge. In the past, winners of the contest have received Olympic ticket packages or electronic equipment. This year, at the suggestion of past participants, a health related prize will be awarded. The winner will receive $600 towards a health coach, dietician or fitness coach.

As a means to increase participation and awareness of the company existing health programs, BC Hydro decided to model their contest on the reality TV show The Biggest Loser. The utilities company invited all employees to complete an online health risk assessment and submit applications to the Extreme Health Makeover Contest.

Over 400 people applied when the program was rolled out and eight finalists were chosen based on their representation of diversity within the organization. These finalists then participated in a 12-week program, including health coaching, nutrition counselling and a fitness program. The fitness component was a big hit as it was personalized for each finalist by well-known trainer and television personality—Tommy Europe.

In 2010, the contest ran again. This time, a 30-day challenge was introduced for all employees and more than 500 jumped on board. In addition, a team of Extreme Health Makeover Champions was introduced to the program. These champions were senior leaders in the company or past contestants.
Corrina Hill, senior HR advisor, employee wellness at BC Hydro says that the photos, stories and experiences that these leaders shared made a big difference to the 30-day challenge. It showed employees “a personal side to their leadership and provided a link to organizational health.”

Since the program has been met with such an overwhelming positive response, BC Hydro is running it again in 2011. This year, live webcasts at noon hour that feature interviews with a celebrity trainer, a dietician or another specialist and the opportunity for employees to ask questions will be added. There will also be an at-home tool for employees who want to follow their co-worker’s progress outside of work.

As you would expect, a program such as this one does not come cheap.

When asked about expenses, Hill did not reveal hard costs but did explain the company has seen measurable improvements in biometrics and other health indicators, which can been seen in an annual health report that outlines total costs of employee healthcare, including sick leave time and pharmaceutical expenditures. Hill said, with confidence, that her organization looks at the health program as an “investment in terms of preventing future costs.”

When asked to give advice to other plan sponsors that may be considering implementing of this type of program, Hill advised they brush up on up on contest law and organize a privacy impact assessment in order to ensure compliance with applicable laws.

She also pointed out that sponsors should plan for every detail and expect some things to go wrong. For example, when the contest’s celebrity trainer got called away for the birth of his child during last year’s kick off day, Hill had to call upon a back up trainer she had on standby.
Unlike health and wellness education, this type of program is a true catalyst for change.

According to Hill, the positive impact on employee morale and productivity lasts much longer than the three month contest period.

“[It’s a] symbolic event that transcends the eight finalists because it promotes actual behaviour change,” concludes Hill.