Peer-to-peer volunteers can get you the answers

'We had a lot of grassroots energy'

Why wouldn't an employee participate in a free Health Risk Assessment (HRA) that offers over 50 data points with valuable information about his or her health? Volunteers can help you find out.

In 2005, Madison, NJ-based Quest Diagnostics introduced its HealthyQuest wellness program, with the goal of creating a culture of health. The cornerstone of the program is the company's own Blueprint for Wellness®, an HRA including a health questionnaire, lab data and biometrics, with employees receiving their results in a patient-friendly report as a snapshot of their health.

"We knew the most successful models center around volunteer-led efforts," says Tom Pela, the company's national HealthyQuest manager. "Wellness and prevention messages can carry greater relevance when coming from a peer."

For this reason, a Health Promotion Team of employee volunteers was created at each of the company's locations. "We came up with a structured set of volunteer roles for each work site," he says.

Although the positions are strictly volunteer, formal job descriptions are used. "We had a lot of grassroots energy early on," he says. "We found that many of our employees had a strong personal interest in promoting wellness and prevention."

When the program first started, about 19% of employees were smokers, which is now down to around 9%. One reason was a switch to a tobacco-free workplace in 2009, and a new policy of covering smoking cessation medications without a copay which began in 2010.

Stories are shared

The data from Blueprint for Wellness allows employees and their spouses to learn more about their own risk factors, which sometimes come as a surprise. "Many have shared with us that they've made positive changes when armed with their personal health data," he says.

Each year, Quest Diagnostic employees share with fellow employees how their HRA results helped them identify a serious risk factor they weren't aware of. A handful of workers have expressed gratitude that their participation in Blueprint for Wellness helped them identify serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses.

HealthyQuest volunteer leaders explain the benefits of participating to employees, and Quest Diagnostics has achieved an average of 70% employee participation in the program. The lab values validate the employee's self-reported results, and often spur workers to take action in reducing risks for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

When volunteers sought to understand why some employees had not taken advantage of the program and the discounts in health premiums that came along with it, they learned that worries about confidentiality were a barrier in some cases. Learning this gave them the chance to explain that personal results are given only to the participant, along with a tear-out copy that can be shared with his or her physician.

Since risk factors and interests may differ by location, employee volunteers give input on which types of local programs, such as tobacco cessation or stress management, are needed most.

Many volunteers are passionate about lifestyle changes they've made themselves, such as weight loss, while former smokers wanted to help their colleagues to quit.

"Personal testimonials are one of the most effective ways to communicate the impact participation in an employee wellness program can have," he says. "Employees who have had success with the healthy lifestyle program they are leading can be very compassionate leaders and effective role models."

In other cases, workers volunteered for the job simply to become more involved cross-functionally in the organization. "These are very desirable positions. People also see leading a HealthyQuest initiative as an opportunity to develop their leadership skills and develop valuable relationships with colleagues," he says.