Sonic Boom Wellness is a corporate wellness company that “gamifies” wellness, capitalizing on social networking, competition, and incentive programs.

Workplace wellness is already a six-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and it’s growing. Employers are searching for programs that are both good for the beltline and the bottom line. The result? They’re gamifying corporate wellness programs.

The KERA radio story.


Traditionally, the role of HR has been to prevent people from playing games at work, but the gamification of health and wellness programs – adding rules, rewards, games and social networking, has changed that. Companies like ESI, a global communications service provider based in Plano, are embracing new health wellness programs that feature points systems and competition.

“The people you least expect to participate do,” says ESI Human Resources Director Becki Veal.

Points For Play

George Platt CEO with device from sonic boom

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

George Platt, CEO of ESI, wears his activity tracking device on his sneaker every day.

At the end of 2011, ESI joined a corporate wellness program called Sonic Boom. The main feature is an activity tracker, like a pedometer, you attach to your sneaker.

The more active you are the more points you get. And points aren’t just good for virtual trophies.

“If they’ve hit 2,000 points within a five-month period,” Veal says, “You go into a drawing for two days off. And that motivates people because who doesn’t love a day off.”

Becki Veal has been Director of Human Resources at ESI for nearly two decades. She say's the new health wellness program, Sonic Boom, has motivated people to get fit.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

Becki Veal has been Director of Human Resources at ESI for nearly two decades. She say’s the new health wellness program, Sonic Boom, has motivated people to get fit.

There are also competitions among companies that use Sonic Boom in other states, and a feature called “Caught Ya Bein’ Healthy” — where you go online to send a message to a coworker who you saw doing something healthy, like grabbing an apple instead of a candy bar.

Tracking Who’s On Top

On the Sonic Boom website, people’s steps and activities are tracked and uploaded to an interactive site that features a list of top performers.

The man in spot number one, who goes by the code name ‘so close, so far’ averages around 25,000 steps a day.

Veal says even though most people use code names – everyone pretty much knows who’s who.

Every day, employees at ESI have the chance to take a walk with coworkers in the morning and afternoon. The walk takes twenty minutes, about 2,200 steps.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

Every day, employees at ESI have the chance to take a walk with coworkers in the morning and afternoon. The walk takes twenty minutes, about 2,200 steps.

Since “so close but so far” started walking, he’s lost about sixty pounds.

Not For Everyone

The social media and tech tracking isn’t for everybody. Some people, like electrical engineer Tom Ratenski would prefer the more traditional newsletter with health tips.

“It’s a personal thing,” he says, “whether I’m 30 pounds overweight or lose thirty pounds or walk ten miles or no miles, it’s something I keep outside of work.”

Ratenski, and a few other employees have opted out altogether.

Tom Ratinsky is an engineer at ESI. He's one of a handful of employees who's opted out of the corporate wellness program.

Lauren Silverman/KERA News

Tom Ratensky is an engineer at ESI. He’s one of a handful of employees who’s opted out of the corporate wellness program.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are allowed to financially penalize employees for unhealthy behavior. Becki Veal with ESI says they won’t use that stick – besides, she says, the carrots they offer have already lowered health insurance claims by a few percentage points.

[More From KERA News: Obamacare 101: Businesses Benefiting From The Affordable Care Act]

“We incentivize healthy lifestyle,” Veal says. “We give them big insurance breaks on our premiums if they do well on biometrics screening. We have 70 percent of our employees in our top wellness category, where they weren’t two, three, four years ago.”

In 2014, ESI was awarded the American Heart Association’s Fit-Friendly Worksite Gold Status and the Healthiest 100 Workplaces in America Award.

What’s The Return On Investment?

Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, says it’s intuitive that prevention will save companies a lot of money, but:

“The data at the moment doesn’t bear this out,” Schmidt says.

He points to a recent evaluation of the wellness program at PepsiCo – which included fifteen thousand workers for the past seven years. That study found no cost savings for lifestyle management interventions, only for disease management – so for helping people who actually were sick.

Even though a number of studies have shown little cost savings for prevention, Schmidt says employers are still searching for the right incentives. Gamified corporate wellness programs that ditch counseling for competition and rewards could be effective. But, he warns:

“We don’t want to make people dependent on points or financial amounts or lottery wins,” Schmidt says. “We want them to develop habits that will be in their own interest and also in their employer’s interest if they have less health care and are more productive.”

The takeaway, not everyone is motivated to get healthy by the same swag. And it seems employers are still playing their own guessing game as to what works.