Jack Curtis couldn’t ignore rising healthcare costs. It was 2002, and while plenty of services worked to shift costs to employees, few tried to reduce the demand for care in the first place, especially for smaller businesses.
So Curtis founded Corporate Health Partners, which designs employee wellness programs with a focus on personal, on-site coaching instead of online programs. Corporate Health Partners was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, and the company moved to Kennesaw in 2013. Today, it works on wellness programs with 50 companies. Though Corporate Health Partners got its start with personal coaching, the company recently expanded its services with the launch of virtual coaching.
Curtis, who serves as CEO, is also the chair of the leadership committee for HERO, a nonprofit that has a national think tank on employee health management. His previous experience includes leading a company that provided comprehensive physical exams and managing a business that manufactures air compressors. He spoke with Crain’s Atlanta about how personal coaching affects a business.
What does personal coaching in a wellness program entail?
I found that the vast majority of health claims and chronic disease and the top reasons for death were self-inflicted. They were due to poor lifestyle choices. So that meant it’s about behaviors. That led me to [say], ‘What’s the best practice for changing behavior? What’s the best practice for behavior modification?’
There were some studies coming out of some work that was done for Fortune 500 companies that were pioneers in the field at that point that showed that health coaching was the best practice. People were up to 350 percent more likely to change from a bad habit to a good habit with the help of a health coach. That’s what led me to coaching … Most of the wellness programs were about the Fortune 500 companies. Most of them are all over the country, if not the world, and so the solutions that were developed were more virtual solutions. So it might be a health risk assessment on a portal and telephonic coaching for the high-risk…
What I learned was, it’s tough to get people to engage over the phone. Individuals would say, ‘Well, why are you calling me? Why are you calling me now? What are you going to do with that information?’ That kind of thing. So it was tough to get people to engage over the phone.
Secondly, even the ones that did engage, and they quit smoking or they lost weight or they helped to manage their stress, if they went back to the work environment, and they were smoking on the factory floor or at their desk or they’re bringing in chicken fried biscuits for breakfast and pizza for lunch, nothing happened. At work, they would get off the tracks very quickly. All the work that was done, the behavior modification due to the health coaching, was not sustainable if there was nothing happening to create a more supportive work environment.
That led us to start going to the worksite. Most of the employers that were not Fortune 500 at that point were not in a position to justify full-time wellness coordinators, so they needed some help. HR people were too busy. They didn’t have the training. Some didn’t have the desire. So they needed help creating a year-round systemic approach to health promotion that made the healthy choice the easy choice at work.
So we started doing that initially in conjunction with a partner that was doing telephonic coaching. That really started to work. People would engage with someone at the worksite much easier and faster and better than they would with somebody over the phone. As we started working on challenges—healthy challenges like a weight loss challenge or a step challenge or a hydration challenge or something like that—people would engage with that and they would show up for the classes on tobacco cessation or nutrition or how to get a fast but nutritious lunch or how to eat at a fast food restaurant. They would show up and they would get engaged.
What are the benefits of personal coaching over online wellness programs?
The early programs that were online weren’t very personalized, and that’s what it takes to make something engaging. If you’re citing numbers or statistics for the nation, you think, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to me.’ The more personal you can be with information, the more engaging that is to anybody that’s trying to participate. Coaching is a great way to do that. It’s arguably the only way you can use motivational interviewing…
For most people, health isn’t at the top of their priority list, unless they’ve lost their health. Anybody that’s lost their health, that’s by far at the top of the priority list—to get that back because if you don’t have good health, it’s hard to do anything else. But most people, it’s not at the top of the priority list, something else is, and maybe it’s having enough money for retirement or being able to get up off the floor once you play with the grandkids or having enough energy at the end of the day to mow the yard or coach the ball team. There’s something else that’s important, so our coaches use a technique called motivational interviewing, which finds out what’s important to you in life, what really gets your juices flowing, what gets you up and running and connects the dots with, ‘Well, why is working on your cholesterol or quitting smoking or managing your stress going to help you with what’s really important to you in life?’ Once you connect those dots, then people will engage. That’s tough to do with an online program.
What are the benefits to businesses from personal coaching programs?
Most of the groups that we talk with invite us in because they’re suffering from increasing healthcare costs, so it’s high insurance premiums. That’s top of mind for them, and health coaching can make a difference. You can help people make a better choice and reduce those risks and you reduce the hospitalization and so forth. It does definitely help to control healthcare costs. If you reduce the risk, you can reduce the cost. It’s that simple.
But wellness has so many more benefits that maybe aren’t as obvious to the general public. ... It also helps with sick days. It helps with safety. A healthy person is less likely to have an accident, and they’re much quicker to get back to work once they do have an accident. A healthier person is much more productive. They’re much more engaged in their work. They perform at a higher level. They’ll go the extra mile. There’s [more] retention. It’s easier to recruit.
There’s just a lot of benefits, so we have employers that sometimes start with helping with healthcare costs but then the conversation changes to, ‘Well, we’ve become a better place to work. We’re not losing as many people. It’s easier to recruit the talent we need. We’ve become an employer of choice.’ And we love it when we hear that kind of conversation.
What tips do you have for employers designing an employee wellness program?
First, you need to know what you’re looking for. What’s your why? Why are you doing this? Hopefully, it’s because employees are the most important asset, and the employees’ most important asset is their health. If you’re really concerned about that, trying to improve employee health, you have to know what it is. You have to measure it. You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it. So what are the metrics? You need to measure employee risk and you need to have a plan for what kind of reduction are we looking for. What’s our goal and what’s our strategy and how are we going to execute that?
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t hit that goal initially, and don’t give up and say, ‘Well, OK, that didn’t work as well as we hoped. What else can we do?’ It’s not something that you want to just say, ‘Well, I’m just going to take my chances, and I’m going to keep paying these double-digit cost increases.’ It’s something that really pays dividends if you’ll be diligent with it…
You need a plan. You need a goal. You need metrics. You need employee input. You need a good wellness team so that it’s not some consultant’s program. It’s their program. [Employees] know how things work at their organization, what’s the best way to communicate, what gets people motivated, what they enjoy and what they didn’t. We know best practices, but employees know what works there, so it’s where those two things come together in a wellness team. We feel like that’s just critical to success, is having employee ownership.