Harnessing the Human Side of Data: Why it Matters

Data is to ROI what gold is to currency. Data measures, characterizes, defines—in short, it quantifies. But when harnessed the right way and for a specific purpose, data also qualifies—it renders the intangible material and measurable, the nuanced specific and actionable. This is the powerful undercurrent that’s driving the “Quantified Self” movement, a trend toward individualized data assessment from personal fitness and sleep quality to numerous health metrics like weight and blood sugar levels. Professionals from programmers to investment bankers are using tools ranging from arm and headbands to mobile apps to track and analyze sleep patterns, food intake, weight, exercise routines and many other lifestyle and health indicators—all in an effort to be not just more productive at work but happier and healthier overall.

The implications of the Quantified Self movement for employers and their HR and health care programs cannot be overstated—or overlooked. For the forward-looking company that wishes to leapfrog over the old, stagnant systems of administering health care benefits and the newer but often ineffective wellness programs, the first step is to shed the old mindset of cost shifting.

First, the traditional approach of hiring a brokerage firm, shopping the markets, and tweaking contribution levels and individual benefit packages has delivered neither lasting benefits to the employee nor significant ROI to the employer. This approach simply shifts the costs of health care and health insurance from one hand to the other; it does not address, or present an alternative to, the cause of those costs.

Second, while workplace wellness programs are a step in the right direction when it comes to improving employee health and lifestyle, they tend to prove ineffective. This is largely because their impact often goes unquantified—no data is collected to show what the results are or to support either customizations to an existing wellness program or the implementation of different program more suited for a company’s workforce.

Case in Point

When a global food manufacturer asked us to determine why their wellness program was not effective, we discovered that it consisted primarily of a fitness center no one was using. They had spent millions of dollars on their gym but had not motivated their workforce to utilize it.

Question to Consider

A well-respected public health institution in California does not measure their results, relying instead on anecdotal evidence to assess their employees’ well-being. How can it prove that it truly is a “healthy organization”?

The shift that needs to take place is not one of costs, but one of employer mindset and employee behavior. What needs to be managed is not the cost but the program. That is where data comes in. Applied with the right metrics, tools, and assessments, data can give an employer a deeply informed look into the vital aspects of their organization, such as:

  • the health and well-being of their workforce, which translates directly into morale and productivity; • the effectiveness of their wellness programs, e.g. which programs work with what groups or populations in what geographies, and which do not;
  • what percentage of their working population is affected by which health and lifestyle issues or conditions; 
  • the true costs of their benefits packages;
  • how personal lifestyle choices tie into health care costs.

Data is one of the most nimble and valuable assets an organization can access. The key is knowing which questions to ask and how to interpret the answers, which correlations to make, and how to cross-pollinate data from disparate areas to yield insights about productivity, innovation, culture, environment, and many other factors critical—or at the very least important—to a company’s success and long-term viability.

Question to Consider

Many prospective clients initially say, “All that data crunching is just too much work. Our broker does a great job.” We ask, how does the client know their broker is doing a great job without the numbers to prove it?

The forward-thinking, forward-acting company will take full advantage of this body of data to operate, manage, assess, and optimize wellness programs as well as healthcare & benefits packages. The professional environment of tomorrow is shifting from a focus on “talent” to a focus on the “whole person”—in other words, not just the talent, skills, and experience an individual brings to the workplace, but their physical, psychological, and emotional well-being as well. After all, without healthy, positive motivation, drive, and energy, all the skill and experience in the world can get misdirected, misused, or severely under-utilized.

Case in Point

We worked with The Cooper Companies to implement their Healthy Choices Wellness Program for their employees. The program included walking, weight management, and nutrition initiatives; the company also hosted health fairs that included screenings and risk assessments. Informal calculations of ROI were 12:1–16:1, depending on the category measured. In addition, loss ratios on their health plans both in their U.S. and Puerto Rico offices decreased (subtracting unexpected large claims over a three-year time frame).

Today, The Cooper Companies is considered one of the Best Places to Work in the San Francisco Bay Area and one of the healthiest places to work in the UK, and is expected to earn further recognition for its health management programs.

We have more tools than ever to quantify employee-related data, from communications and morale to biorhythms and exercise routines. What we need to do now is shift our mindset as corporations, and change our lifestyle as employees. The gold standard of health care is being defined by those employers actively harnessing the human side of their data, for their people, their productivity, and their bottom line.

Catherine oversees UBF's daily operations and client retention strategy. She has a background in mathematics, economics, and human resources. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, taking the dog on long walks, and caring for a small and unfruitful garden.
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