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Employers Incorporate Brain Games into Wellness Programs

(My thanks to Michael Conforme, Talent Performance Expert at GCT Partners for directing this to my attention.)

Katherine Reynolds Lewis writes that some employers are expanding their wellness programs to include brain function exercises to help employees manage stress amid the increasing demands on their time and attention.

She reports that Nationwide Insurance employee Jeanne Siersdorfer  is logging hours of computer time online at work balancing a virtual basketball while other objects fly across the computer screen. But Nationwide actually encourages her to play the game as a part of its wellness plan.

Surely You Kid?

Don’t call me Shirley. These games are produced by a company called Brain Resource as part of a wellness solutions package called MyBrainSolutions that are intended to teach concentration and stress management techniques to boost executive function and memory, increase positive thinking, and achieve other brain-enhancing goals.  The solution is recommended for jobs that rely on knowledge work, creativity, and communication skills, which require that workers be mentally sharp, emotionally present, and free from distraction. Gregory Bayer, chief executive of Brain Resource says:

The brain, we’re finding out, is much like muscles in the body. If you exercise it, it gets better. You actually grow neurons. If you can teach people how to manage those multitasking and stressful environments optimally, you’re going to preserve their health.

Beyond the immediate benefit of improving brain function, the suite of games can work in tandem with other wellness programs to help individuals achieve other health goals, such as weight loss, exercise, or quitting smoking. Employees can set goals within the MyBrainSolutions software and track their progress, in addition to working on cognitive areas that will help them stick to the plan.

What’s the Methodology?

MyBrainSolutions users begin with an assessment of their brain to provide a baseline along four axes:

  • Emotion
  • Thinking
  • Self-regulation
  • Feeling.

Based on the resulting profile, the software suggests specific games to build up the areas of cognitive function that are weakest. The system then tracks users’ progress, giving points for playing time and badges when users reach milestones.

According to  Jesse Wright, a psychiatry professor at the University of Louisville whose research on computer-assisted cognitive therapy was cited by Brain Resource in a white paper on the scientific basis for the program, this is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT):

Wide spread use of CBT computer programs does have the potential of helping people who do not have psychiatric illness but could benefit from the practical strategies of CBT to enhance problem solving, stress management, etc. A caution is that people with real problems such as depression would likely need genuine, well-constructed help programs to relieve symptoms.

What’s the Need?

David Nill, vice president and chief medical officer at electronic medical records provider Cerner Corporation introduced MyBrainSolutions as a pilot program this summer to offer support to a workforce of about 9,500. The pilot will eventually expand to its global workforce as far as India, where seeking mental health care carries a stigma.

Reduction in Health-Related Costs: It’s a key area of interest at Cerner because behavioral health issues such as depression and anxiety affect 30% of their employees and family members and cost about $2 million in health expenses. The most expensive cases, which represent about 5% of Cerner’s workers, involve stress-related conditions, according to Nill. He says:

Usually, people don’t engage in this type of activity until they’re not functioning well; they’re headed toward a diagnosis. Brain Resource brought on an ability for consumers to engage any time, any place, on their own terms without having to talk to anybody. I’ve been aware of the science for quite a while. It’s very compelling. It’s cognitive behavioral therapy; you’re just doing it without them having to sit in a therapist’s office.

Now if only we can distract those corporate efficiency experts with games, we might be able to save some jobs.

Show Me The Money!

Wellness Results
The fun, game atmosphere of MyBrainSolutions helped Nationwide achieve goals, contributing to greater effectiveness of the broader wellness offerings. For instance, it made the employee assistance program (EAP) more appealing and stigma-free.
Nationwide’s results after introducing MyBrainSolutions in 2009:
  • EAP use at Nationwide Use skyrocketed to 18.4% in 2011 from 7.7% in 2007  (that year’s industry average was 4%.)
  • Nationwide’s percentage of obese and overweight workers declined between 2010 and 2012.
  • In 2012, for the first time more than 70% of the population became low risk.
  • The high-risk population fell to an all time low of 7%.

Cerner’s results:

  • Over 1,000 employees signed up for the program within the first two weeks and currently there are 2,500 users, more than Nill anticipated.

Self Development Results

At Nationwide, a case study found,  based on self-reported responses to Brain Resource questions, that workers who played the games regularly:

  • Increased their positive thinking by 5%
  • Boosted social skills by 8%
  • Heightened their emotional resilience by 9%.

Bottom Line Results

Nationwide’s bottom line improved as well, according to these self-reported results:
  • 8% improvement in productivity
  • 7% decrease in absenteeism

Kathleen Herath, associate vice president for health and productivity at Nationwide states that the best outcomes are when people are doing this along with another program:

If I’m trying to do a weight loss program, learning what motivates my brain and how my brain functions is the key to helping change my behavior.