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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Game On: New Ways to Engage Employees in Health, Wealth, and Professional Development

February 27, 2015

By Jamie Payne

Oklahoma State University's nine campuses are supported by more than 8,000 employees. With such a large and diverse employee population, we needed to move beyond many of the traditional approaches of employee engagement if we wanted to continue encouraging employees to take charge of their health and wellness. During the past several years, we have introduced a variety of games and innovative programs to increase participation and appeal to full-person health-the physical, mental, emotional, and financial needs of individuals.

Fun and Games

Games are a great way to instill friendly competition and encourage social interaction and participation. They are also a more likely vehicle for engaging many younger workers for whom gaming is second nature. Our focus on games at OSU is to improve employee knowledge and outcomes, help employees learn how to use new tools, and provide HR staff with key insights for developing future customized programs.

Financial intelligence. We believe strongly that one component of a healthy employee is his or her financial well-being. About a year ago, we launched a series of financial IQ quizzes. Each week we sent out a new quiz and had our campuses compete, providing weekly updates of which campus was in the lead. The competitive nature of the games led to greater participation. More than 800 employees joined the first session. On average, participating employees completed 10 sessions, and nearly half (47 percent) of employee participants completed all 15 sessions. Through this process, we made an important discovery. Based on the quiz scores, we recognized opportunities for enhanced financial education in two demographic groups in particular: women and younger employees. This has since allowed us to tailor training opportunities for these workforce segments.

Because we know that today more women are managing finances within the workplace and at home, we have developed a three-part workshop series to help educate and engage women in financial and retirement planning-from basic budgeting to more complex investment strategies. As a result of the additional programming, we have seen 68 percent of participants take some kind of action on their retirement plan during or after training-whether to sign up for additional training or to make changes to their retirement plan investment levels or allocations.

Several months ago we offered another financial quiz specifically related to employees' knowledge about the transition of our retirement plan. (We recently streamlined investment options, moving from 10 vendors to one). In addition to results from the financial quiz, we conducted employee focus groups to gather input that will help us develop targeted messages about our new retirement plan to address employee gaps in understanding.

We continue to explore fun ways for employees to increase their financial knowledge or to make them aware of program benefits. We are currently preparing a new game that will lead employees on a virtual treasure hunt around campus to answer questions and find clues to progress to successive levels.

Emotional calm. Another way we have employed games to strengthen the health of our employees is through the "reboot" center we have introduced on our main campus. This offers a tranquil spa-like environment where employees and students can play video games that teach them how to de-stress through various exercises such as controlled breathing. In order to move their avatars, users have to keep their heart rate steady. The games include a training module on how to control these physiological factors so users can be better focused on being present in the game. Interest continues to grow in the center and we are preparing to open another reboot room in our wellness center to accommodate demand and reach a larger audience. Our plan is to eventually roll out reboot centers on all our campuses for employee and student use.

Creative compliance training. Attempts to increase employee engagement through fun and games has even spread to our training and professional development efforts. By incorporating some of the instructional design components of the Bob Pike Group training tools, we have been able to include pictures, puzzles, and activities to enliven even our most mundane requisite compliance training. Some of the software we purchased allows us to develop "Jeopardy"-style games where we can insert questions into the system and have teams compete against one another. It's now rare to see employees sitting through a lecture-style training program. Instead they are actively engaged through competition and creative brainstorming.

Pet therapy. While not a game, per se, we've introduced a campus-based pet therapy program, with great success. Our president's wife is passionate about animals and wellness. Since one of the most important components of wellness is emotional health, what better way to help employees, faculty, and students de-stress than through a program that provides some quality time with a friendly face? Students in particular often leave a beloved pet behind when they head off to college, so many yearn to maintain a connection to their four-legged pals. In addition to set office hours (e.g., "yappy hour" and "wagging Wednesdays") when anyone can stop by to visit the dogs, individuals or departments can submit requests for a dog to attend a departmental meeting or event. (We hired a part-time pet therapy coordinator who reports through HR, and most of the requests for visits are managed through an online scheduling system.) These certified therapy dogs are also on hand to provide grief and stress management relief during crisis situations, such as a death or accident on campus.

The program partners with our school of veterinary medicine to help with the canine wellness component and obedience training. We currently have 13 certified therapy dogs available for appointments. Most of these are pets that have been rescued through our local Humane Society. The owners/handlers go through a rigorous training program with the selected dogs, which are then tested for canine good-citizenship status. The program also includes a mentoring component where owners/handlers from previous classes teach the new dogs and handlers how to navigate campus and train for behavior at campus events.

More Than the Same

Not everything lends itself to a game. Part of the secret of engaging employees in their health and wellness may be to broaden or even redefine existing services so that the offerings are seen as value-added.

New spin on employee assistance. Each year we evaluate progress on the same set of 13 factors. One of those factors is use of our employee assistance program. We currently have a 43 percent utilization rate of our EAP, and we see this as a good thing because of the unique focus we have put on this offering. While many think of their EAP primarily in connection with counseling services, we have contracted with our EAP to provide expanded consumer benchmarking and work/life balance services. For instance, we have connected employees with the EAP to help them research the best health-care plans for their aging parents or other family members. We've also put new employees in touch with our EAP to provide assistance with relocation to the area by researching housing options within particular price ranges and neighborhoods. These kinds of consumer services free employees to be more present and productive at work.

One of the best components of our EAP contract is manager assistance. This allows supervisors to contact the EAP when they have an employee whom they suspect may be having a personal crisis that is interfering with work. EAP agents can provide supervisors with advice on how to reach out to employees. They can also work directly with employees. In one instance, a supervisor became aware of an employee's substance abuse problem, which had started impacting the employee's attendance and productivity. Instead of terminating a good employee, the supervisor put together a plan that offered the employee continued employment if the individual agreed to work through the problem with a certified counselor of choice via our EAP. This allowed the employee privacy in dealing with the matter and gave relief to the supervisor that a good employee was getting the necessary help to get back on track.

Leading the pack. Oklahoma State University was among the first higher education institutions to hire a full-time chief wellness officer and to begin to pull together all the pockets of excellence from academics and research on nutrition, fitness, campus life, and work/life balance activities. This position is ensuring that we strategize effectively on matters of health and wellness in one unified direction. Our chief wellness officer also brings a strategic approach to wellness and benchmarking beyond our institution. As part of our outreach mission, OSU is taking the lead on a project to assist the state with health-related data collection in connection with pharmacy and clinical outcomes.

As one of the larger employers in the state, we are also a great group to use for the kind of pilot program that tests health improvement. On the whole our university population is much healthier than the rest of the state. In one example, tobacco use is 17 percent in the state versus 6 percent of tobacco use among our university population. Our fruit and vegetable consumption is also higher than the state on average, and we attribute these differences in part to our health education efforts.

Jamie Payne is assistant vice president/chief human resources officer at Oklahoma State University; e-mail:

For more about using games to enhance employee engagement, see "Playing Games With Gen Y" by Joe Coughlin, director of the MIT Age Lab.