Employees Collectively Lose Nearly 20,000 Pounds in Health Challenge

By challenging employees to achieve a healthy weight or become more physically active, CIGNA raised employees’ awareness of their own health and their company-sponsored benefits.

How It Worked

Last fall, CIGNA introduced a new incentive for employees to maintain a healthy weight, says Marilyn Paluba, senior consultant with the Healthy Life program—a $15 per pay period reduction in employees’ contribution to healthcare premiums throughout 2010.

To help employees achieve their weight-loss goals and to help raise awareness about living a healthy life, the Shape Up CIGNA Healthy Life Team Challenge was launched earlier this year. Interested employees formed teams of five to 10 employees and chose their own team name, such as “The Sore Losers,” “Mission: Slimpossible,” and “Potato Chips to Slim Hips” for the 10-week Challenge, says Mary Bianchi, a CIGNA benefits consultant and Healthy Life program manager. There were about 300 weight-loss teams and 800 physical-activity teams.

Employees took part in various activities on their own (e.g., walking, riding bikes to work, and running—instead of walking—a 5K race), she says. Team captains collected weight-loss or physical-activity data from team members and entered the information online.

Company leaders in many offices arranged walks and found creative ways to support employees, such as designating every Friday during the Shape Up Challenge as “Sneaker Day.” Says Bianchi, “If you have comfortable shoes on, you’re likely to be more active.”

Throughout the initiative, CIGNA offered “mini-challenges,” such as taking a nutrition quiz and encouraging employees to use a pedometer to try to increase the number of steps taken during the day. In addition, telephone seminars covered topics such as preparing healthy meals on a budget and staying active at home.

The Shape Up Challenge also had an executive sponsor: Jodi Prohofsky, Ph.D., LMFT, CIGNA’s senior vice president of health management operations, who wrote on an employee blog about her experience as captain of her own team. “That personal touch really resonates with folks,” Bianchi says.

Accomplishments Achieved

Approximately 8,600 employees (about one-third of the health service company’s U.S. workforce) participated in the Shape Up Challenge. Collectively, they lost nearly 20,000 pounds (i.e., 10 tons) and logged 15.9 million minutes of physical activity, which CIGNA says is equivalent to 30 years of activity.

Some teams planned to continue losing weight or remaining physically active for an additional 10 weeks, and some pledged to continue through the end of 2010, Bianchi says.

The Challenge helped raise awareness of employee benefits, including CIGNA’s Healthy Steps to Weight Loss Program and one-on-one health coaching, says Paluba.

Every participant received a Challenge T-shirt, and the top three teams in each category (weight loss and physical activity) were awarded prizes. First-place teams received gift certificates to a spa or a registered dietician; second-place team members were given an iPod® (to use while they exercise); and the third-place winners got a digital kitchen scale, according to Bianchi.

But “we barely communicated the prizes throughout the Challenge, and employees didn’t ask about prizes. I think, ultimately, they weren’t focused as much on that” as they were on having fun with their colleagues, she says.

The Challenge is one component of CIGNA’s overall Healthy Life strategy, which encourages employees to maintain a healthy weight and promotes preventive care and nontobacco use, according to Paluba.

She credits Healthy Life with a 27 percent increase in employee use of preventive care services in the last 4 to 5 years, lowered health risks, higher productivity, and a decline in short-term disability claims. In addition, CIGNA is facing lower healthcare premium increases than other companies, she says.

CIGNA has been recognized for 5 consecutive years as a recipient of the “Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles” award from the National Business Group on Health, including the Platinum award for 3 years running.

What to Do

Employers interested in promoting healthy lifestyles should make an ongoing commitment to do so. “It’s not something you can do once in awhile,” Paluba says. “You have to do it every day.”

If you are sponsoring a particular health-related challenge, Bianchi offers some advice to consider:

  • Benchmark. Find out what other companies are doing and determine what will work in your culture.
  • Find an executive sponsor. This is a key success factor, according to Bianchi.
  • Reach out to at-home workers. Be sure to promote the initiative to teleworkers as well as office employees.
  • Communicate. Explain the benefits of maintaining a healthy weight and staying physically active. Keep participants informed about personal success stories and progress toward goals.