Podcast: Employee Health Challenges with Abbey Griffin


In this episode of the Well-Being Experts podcast, we’re discussing health challenges; fun competitions to further engage employees with their wellness benefits. We sat down with Abbey Griffin, Director of Product Development at Onlife Health, to talk about how to gain buy-in to these programs, the future of wearables and how to encourage social engagement.

“The aspect of team challenges that really always works is that camaraderie, that social development with your peers, and kind of building those relationships that can lead to other positive health outcomes outside of these challenges.”




Want to dive deeper into this Well-Being Experts podcast? Here's the full transcript from our discussion with Abbey Griffin, Director of Product Development at Onlife Health.


Abbey: The aspect of team challenges that really always works is that camaraderie, that social development with your peers, and kind of building those relationships that can lead to other positive health outcomes outside of these challenges.

Host: This is the Well-being Experts podcast and you just heard from Abbey Griffin, Director of Product Development at Onlife Health. We had a chance to sit down to discuss team wellness challenges and how to gain buy-in to these programs. She also shares her thoughts about the  future of wearables and how to encourage social engagement.

Abbey: They did a study of over 15 devices and apps and compared the accuracy against one another, and there were not huge differences. So, that to me says, “Yes, agnostic solutions could work with challenges and it could lead to improved engagement, because you’re letting people use what they prefer.”

Host: For more content like this, go to onlifehealth.com/resources. Enjoy the conversation!

Abbey: Hi, my name’s Abbey Griffin. I work at Onlife Health as a director of product development. I’ve been in the wellness and health industry for over 20 years. And I started out in the clinical setting as a registered dietitian and kind of moved into corporate wellness. And then into product development to be able to create fun, new, cool solutions that really help people improve their health and wellness.

Host: Excellent. Well, I am looking forward to talking with you for a little while today about employee wellness challenges. We’ll talk a little bit about just what a health challenge is and some of your thoughts on how this plays an essential role in wellness programs today. We’ll also talk a little bit about what the future holds, maybe as it relates to wearables, fitness trackers, and how all that is impacting wellness challenges, too. So yeah, I am excited to start off. Let’s just kick this off with, what is a health challenge?

Abbey: A health challenge is a program, or a competition of some sort, that brings people together to work towards a common interest or goal. They are very popular. They have been around in the wellness space since I can remember. It started as paper challenges, which is kind of fun to think about.

Host: Paper challenges?

Abbey: Oh yeah. In 2008. Right when the wellness space was expanding pretty rapidly, and before a lot of technology was available. So, you had these 8-week challenges, and team captains, and excel spreadsheets, and paper and pencil, and now it’s morphed into some really cool things.

Host: Yes. I can’t wait to talk about how it’s changed and how it continues to be changed. Before we get to that, what’s been your experience with the value that’s provided by health challenges?

Abbey: Sure. Health challenges are a great way for people to get together that share a common interest, especially within wellness, a common health interest where they can build relationships, build social connections, especially at the workplace, where you spend a large majority of your life; and really find that the motivation amongst one another in that peer support to work towards improving your health. Whether it’s a team base, where you’re actually leveraging the social connections, the camaraderie, the “I’ve got 30 more minutes of exercise than you,” and kind of nudging one another, to whether you’re just doing it on an individual level and challenging yourself; saying, “That’s just how I operate and I want to get 10,000 more steps next week.” It’s that element of competition, that really no matter what type of challenge it is drives the success of the programs.

Host: So, that could include a challenge internally, maybe there’s teams competing against each other?

Abbey: With our experience with challenges, when you have a challenge across the company that offers teams, one thing that works really well, and this is all communicated through our member communications in our programs, is that a team of four to six people works really well. You have all these pockets of people across the company that are forming these teams and then they’re competing together against one another to ultimately win that challenge or that competition.

Host: If you start getting more than six, then what happens?

Abbey: Then it’s a little bit of – the balance is a little bit off. You have more opportunity for one person in the group to collect all of the steps, or one that maybe is just relying on riding the coattails of others, and it’s easier to manage.

Host: Okay. You can’t hide.

Abbey: Yeah, you can’t hide.

Host: There’s only four people.

Abbey: Yeah, four to six is that sweet spot, but of course every company is different; every person is different, so sometimes it works.

Host: On average, what are typical participation rates that you’ve seen?

Abbey: So, it varies. And that’s always going to be the case. On average, depending on the type of incentive that you apply towards the challenge or that program, it can range from 10% to 30% over the course of that program. And then, of course, engagement with that solution means you’re participating, you’re collecting data or tracking activity that is part of the challenge, or you completed the challenge. That kind of defines engagement or challenge participation.

Host: Are there an optimal number of challenges that should be done over a plan year?

Abbey: Again, it varies. I feel like I’m going to always answer that way when it comes to specific questions about a program because every company is different. What’s worked well for us is quarterly – offering the option to do a quarterly challenge, and we have a lot of challenges that align with a season: fall into fitness, walktober, those kinds of things. So, it aligns nicely with certain times of the year. The length of our challenges is flexible too. So again, like I said, the sweet spot for teams are four to six [members], but challenge length is around eight weeks. Six to eight weeks is a really good amount of time to host a team challenge.

Host: And is some of that decision about how many of these happen, is that something to also include with the participants? Is it something of asking, “Hey, how many of these we’ll try to do?” or do they not really necessarily know how many they would want to do?

Abbey: I think that’s a great question and I think that if the company and the people, the boots on the ground, if everyone’s aligned, and there’s consistent communication around goals of your well-being program, and what you want out of it, and what the company wants out of it, then through that communication and that surveying of your population in the focus groups, you can leverage that to know exactly. Do you even want challenges? Oh, yes, I do. I want them as much as you want to offer them. And so that will then drive the number that we would recommend for that program year.

Host: That makes sense, to try to get the validation before you actually introduce it. When do you introduce or suggest health challenges to clients? Is that at the beginning of the relationship, one year in, when engagement is low to maybe try to get people to engage, all of the above? How does that go?

Abbey: All of the above.

Host: Oh, really?

Abbey: Yeah. So, I think it’s something that’s talked about at our initial program launch. It’s talked about during plan designs. It’s balancing the information that you’re getting from employers and employees and then defining what’s the right time for your organization to offer this. And perhaps it is when – last year when we saw this kind of success, but we saw a kind of a drop in this time period because it was after open enrollment and we had done this one campaign. So, what about a challenge in this quarter because we really want to pick up engagement? So, it’s all very different. It’s all organizational based, but there is some structure there when recommending when to do it.

Host: What types of challenges seem to work maybe more frequently or don’t work, and/or have you been surprised by any employee wellness challenges performed a certain way?

Abbey: I think that the aspect of team challenges that really always works is that camaraderie, that social development with your peers, and kind of building those relationships that can lead to other positive health outcomes outside of these challenges. So, that always works with a challenge, and that’s kind of the core of offering them.

With regards to the structure and the timing of the year, that varies. What health topics work the best from my experience are ones that apply to the majority of the population. So, those wellness topics that we know well are the fitness, the physical activity, the nutrition, sleep, yoga, meditation – those that can kind of apply to general well-being and that everyone can kind of get behind and do everyday anyways, or should.


Well-Being Experts is supported by Onlife Health. Onlife Health is a comprehensive wellness provider serving health plans and large employers nationwide. With over 10 million members and 20 years of industry experience, Onlife takes a high touch, high tech approach to wellness that creates real results for your population. Find out more at onlifehealth.com.


Host: So social support – that is a key ingredient for this. Other things that organizations can do better, and this is just like an optimistic question, just generally do better when offering employees wellness challenges?

Abbey: I would say that it’s not just necessarily with challenges with what organizations could do better, but I think that the synergy between all levels of the organization from the leadership down really has to be in place to be ultra-successful. Whether it’s a team challenge or whether it’s other wellness program offerings. If your CEO is going on a walk every day or is challenging you to get 10,000 more steps in this month’s team competition, that hits home with a lot of people in the organization because you’re all buying into that same goal, and there’s that peer-to-peer – your peers. Everyone is a peer in the organization and so you’re getting that support from all levels.

Host: Right. So, the social support doesn’t necessarily just mean the person working next to you – it’s everybody?

Abbey: Yep. Uh-huh. Organizational support.

Host: Organizational support.

Abbey: Yes, uh-huh.

Host: That’s great. Are there any other components that help make up a well-designed wellness challenge?

Abbey: So, first, you have to start with the communication, which is with everything. It’s communicate, communicate, over communicate; making sure those goals align and that your population wants challenges. And then communicate what’s about to happen.

So, the next part of challenges are to implement well. To have success is to incorporate wellness behaviors or healthy behaviors that align with what everyone in your population probably does on a daily basis. If you want to integrate four different challenges with wearables, whether it is nutrition or fitness or sleep, you want to make sure there’s alternate options for people that maybe don’t have a wearable, or can’t do that activity.

You want to provide online social networks within the challenge so people can say, “That a boy!” and, “High five!” and be able to communicate within the team but kind of do that gentle nudging of other teams to get that competition going. And then you want to make sure that it’s the right length for whatever goals you’re looking to get out of the challenge, whether that’s six weeks, ten weeks, whatever aligns with both the organizational and employee goals.

Finally of course, there are the incentives. Whether is a charitable donation, whether all the teams are working towards the same goal, but then the team that wins gets bragging rights but everyone’s incentive goes to a charity, or the team that wins the big prize. It’s just all based on that culture and what makes sense for that organization.

Host: Certainly, and the loud and clear message is communicate and – because it’s for everyone to enjoy; it’s for everyone to benefit from. So, everyone needs to be in that. So, when you think – you kind of touched on this just now; what other types of challenges are there, not just physical activity related ones?

Abbey: As I mentioned, the things – the types of programs or competitions, challenges that work well are with behaviors that can apply to most of the population. So, fitness is definitely number one. It’s just screams competition – races, 5K’s, walking.

Host: It’s the adrenaline pumping.

Abbey: Yes, just physical activity challenges. That’s where it started. But now we’re looking to expand that. We’re looking at nutrition challenges. And so who’s tracked the most fruits and vegetables today? That’s a goal that most people need to work towards and achieve. Or, sleep. Have you tracked your sleep today? Did you have sufficient sleep last night? And so working on other health topics that aren’t just physical activity, but that can still apply to a large portion of the population.

Host: So physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and any other ones comes to mind?

Abbey: Social connectedness. So, one of the activities is having dinner with your family once a week, and did you do that – yes or no? And so that’s part of the challenge. Or, volunteering. So, did you participate in a volunteer activity this week? And you check yes or no, and then whoever does the most, wins the prize.

Host: And that’s just one more way to think of wellness. It’s about more than just running, like you said earlier.

Abbey: Yeah. And to speak to that, so the mindfulness and the social connectedness, and those sort of topics, that’s where wellness is going. I think that it’s the traditional health topics like your physical activity, and your nutrition, and your weight management, and those sorts of things. It’s expanding into your holistic self, where you need to look at more than just those traditional health topics.

Host: Right. This has been a really great conversation because we’ve gone from all the way back [starting with] paper challenges, right?

Abbey: Yes.

Host: Back to paper challenges, and now today – now I’m curious, and maybe we can just think a little bit about what the future might be. I’ve heard of some – this is just scratching the surface – of some people who’ll be thinking about rewarding based on sleep patterns.

Abbey: Yes. It’s a very interesting topic right now that is gaining a lot of attention in our space with the wearable devices that are on the market. Every new device that’s coming out, whether it’s Adidas or Microsoft Band, they have elements of sleep tracking, and so there is interest there. I think it’s obviously something that everyone does, so it can apply to everyone. Everyone is interested in it. They want to sleep better because they feel better and they want to be more productive. So, with devices capturing that data it’s so easy to access now. What can we do with it? People that don’t sleep are grumpy, and they’re not as productive, and they’re not as happy. If we can find a way to leverage that data, whether it’s in a competition, or whether it’s in another program to help people improve their sleep, that’s a really interesting topic in our space right now.

Host: I know you can get pretty amped up with physical activity, but I bet people could get pretty motivated.

Abbey: You can pay me to sleep.

Host: The sleep challenge?

Abbey: Yeah.

Host: Bring in some of the sleep pods.

Abbey: Yes, definitely. Pay me to take a nap.

Host: So, you just mentioned – this is one of the final questions I wanted to make sure we covered and, of course, it’s about wearables, and so you talked a little about that just now. But how have wearables and fitness trackers – how have they changed challenges? And are challenges, are they typically device agnostic, and if so, does that hurt participation? What are your thoughts around that?

Abbey: Sure, that is a really great question, and I think that that’s the trend that we’ve seen with challenges early on. When there was an old-school pedometer that you wore and then you typed in how many steps you had on your pedometer, or now some of the more integrated trackers, definitely 100% have made challenges easier. You set it and you forget it, essentially. So, I hook up my device of choice whether that’s a Jawbone, a FitBit, a Garmin, and I can then participate in the challenge. And those steps automatically feed that challenge.

From an agnostic versus single device perspective, I think that that is a really good question. There is some research that has come out recently from the Journal of American Medical Association that suggests that – they did a study of over 15 devices and apps and compared the accuracy against one another. And there were not huge differences with step calculations between some of our favorite apps and some of our favorite fitness wearables. So, that to me says yes, agnostic solutions could work with challenges and it could lead to improved engagement, because you’re letting people use what they prefer.

Host: Right. You mentioned the Microsoft one earlier, so someone might be a big Microsoft user, and why make them change into using something they don’t want?

Abbey: Right, exactly.

Abbey: Yup. And again, that study really helped validate that that agnostic challenge solution is definitely something that is achievable. But also that devices that come on the market and the new devices put out by manufacturers currently on the market are constantly improving. So, the accuracy is also getting better and better.

Host: Excellent. Well, this has been such a great conversation. I always enjoy talking with you. I really appreciate you sharing your insight and I look forward to the future.

Abbey: Great, thanks.

Host: Thank you to today’s guest. And a big thank you to you for listening along with us. Well-Being Experts is brought to you by Onlife Health, a comprehensive wellness solutions company that has spent years working with health plans and large employers nationwide.


Today’s podcast and additional perspectives from the Well-being Experts can be found at onlifehealth.com/resources. We welcome your comments, questions, feedback, all of the above at engage@onlifehealth.com.