Workplace wellness quest: Q & A with Aetna's Paul Coppola | Crain's

Workplace wellness quest: Q & A with Aetna's Paul Coppola

Photo courtesy of Paul Coppola

Being mindful of health and wellness in the workplace is the new norm. Most major healthcare providers now offer a grab bag of wellness programs to supplement traditional benefits such as medical, dental and vision. These additional benefits might include wellness coaching, personal training, biometric screening and even stress reduction.

Paul Coppola, senior director of care management solutions a Hartford-based Aetna, recently spoke with Crain's about his company's benefits and how they differ from those in the wider market. Aetna, one of the largest healthcare providers in the United States, has offered wellness programs for the last 15 years.

In 2018, Aetna plans to give away 500,000 Apple Watches to qualifying customers after a successful pilot program with its own employees to improve fitness.

What sort of wellness benefits does Aetna offer to its customers?

We really try to take a population-health approach today for our employers, recognizing that each organization is a little different in what its needs are. Many of the employers we’re working with have very specific goals. We have some of the traditional things you might think of, like health assessments and biometric screenings. We deploy a number of different components that focus on the total person whether through fitness, nutrition or stress reduction. We also do a lot with sleep. We have solutions today that further [explore] metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetes.

We offer our programs today through mobile capabilities or an in-person experience that we might do right in an employer’s workplace. But we also do things through near-site, which might be through a local partner that we’re working with in their communities.

What specific ways do you encourage health through these programs?

The fitness challenges bring the employee population together to help promote physical activity, as well as things like nutrition, where they’re actually competing [with one another] at the local worksite.

These types of competitions energize the population; we typically see [employee involvement] between 30 to 50 percent. We also find improvement: People start to reduce their weight and start to change some of their habits, especially in trying to get more exercise.

What wellness benefits are offered to Aetna employees? Are they similar to those offered to customers?

We offer programs like wellness coaching to our associates whether they use our medical benefits or not. Our employee population is really focused around health improvement, but also key is the happiness [they feel] in the job they do. So we offer a combination of onsite and online coaching, as well as virtual personal training.

The feedback is very positive; people appreciate [having] a lot of options. 

What sort of studies have you conducted, and what came of them?

The first study we conducted, in 2010, was based on mind-body stress-reduction. The study looked at the specific health-risk factors in populations of highly stressed individuals. We looked at heart rate and blood pressure. We found that when we used the practice of mindfulness [in] a virtual classroom, there was a 28 percent reduction in perceived stress level. Highly stressed people learned that you can’t shut stress off, but you can control it. There was also a 20 percent improvement in overall sleep quality and 19 percent reduction in pain level.

How did Aetna choose to focus on mindfulness?

Part of it started because our CEO and chairman is actually an advocate for it himself. He had a very serious accident in his life, and he uses the practice of mindfulness and yoga to help him control pain. So we were fortunate to have the level of endorsement from him to actually understand this issue and study it more.

What kind of trends have you seen since you started offering these benefits? What are people responding to, now that the marketplace is a bit more crowded?

Back 15 years ago, it was much more individual-directed, meaning you were telling people specific steps they should be taking. Today things are much more holistic and member-centric. The other dramatic [change] is the way we deliver programs. Historically it was just telephonic, but in the last few years, it’s been very omnichannel, using digital, online, mobile, group coaching and texts.

What other strategies does Aetna use to set itself apart from the pack?

There’s still a big interest in incentives. Often, things like health assessments won’t be completed unless there’s a motivator. A lot of times employers will bring incentives in to drive activity. At Aetna specifically, we offer a combination of participation-based incentives and outcome-based incentives.

Aetna introduced a chief mindfulness officer in 2016. It was a very important statement to the marketplace that mindfulness isn’t just something to talk about. It really is something we embody, from the perspective of health. And it’s a part of our culture; it’s how we do business.​​

January 12, 2018 - 3:38pm