Tom Mason on Engaging Employers in Community Health: A NewPublicHealth Q&A

Nov 3, 2011, 3:33 PM, Posted by

Tom Mason

NewPublicHealth reported yesterday on a Congressional briefing to launch a new report, Healthier Americans for a Healthier Economy. The report showcases several states and cities that have found that better health for their citizens can also improve their bottom line, often in partnership with businesses and other community partners. NewPublicHealth spoke with Tom Mason, president of the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota, and one of the presenters at yesterday's briefing about the group’s efforts and preliminary outcomes in Minnesota.

NewPublicHealth: When did the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota open for business?

Tom Mason: It began about two years ago. We started working with Target and Cargill and a couple of other early members about how to use competitions and information and entertainment to try to better engage employees regarding workplace wellness activities. Very sophisticated companies all are very aware of the return on investment at multiple levels regarding workplace wellness and prevention and overall well-being, but it’s not always easy to interest employees.

NPH: What background do you bring to the Alliance?

Tom Mason: I have a public affairs firm that focuses on issues related to marketing for manufacturers and other businesses. I’m close with former Governor Tim Pawlenty, and we were talking about consumer-oriented health reform and we began talking about electronic medical records and that’s what got us down this path. I’ve been in and around Capitol Hill for more than ten years and in three different Senate offices, most recently as Chief of Staff for former Senator Norm Coleman (R) from Minnesota, and have had an interest in the marketing of high public purpose for a long time, so this is almost a dream come true. It’s really been very gratifying and fun.

NPH: What Alliance programs are underway?

Tom Mason: We have a bunch actually. Because of our affiliation with General Mills, we were able to get a relationship with NBC’s Biggest Loser and we sponsored a health competition around weight and other health issues [at the local level] and 33,000 people participated. It’s not just about weight loss, it’s about healthy eating and exercises and you could score points in the competition for all of those things. Companies competed against each other and competed within divisions of their own companies and it’s worked very well. This year we’re not emphasizing the Biggest Loser aspect of the competition, and it’s more of just a general health and wellness competition, but we think we might get as many as 75,000 participants this time as we open it statewide.

NPH: How are you targeting the specific needs of small businesses?

Tom Mason: We call the small business alliance "Basically Fit," and we’re just kicking off the beta test next week. When we talk to the large members of the alliance, they realize that if we’re going to push wellness and prevention and well-being as a genuine aspect of health care reform, we need to reach more than just big companies. Almost 65 percent of Minnesotans work for companies with 100 or fewer employees. Now those companies rarely even have an HR [human resources] department much less a wellness specialist. So what we did is we designed a web portal that will enable businesses to learn what’s going on in wellness. They’ll be able to see what we look for in a rate of return as well as find resources on presenteeism, absenteeism, programs and other things companies can do.

We’ve spent a lot of time and effort putting it together, and we’re working to deliver it as a portal through the websites of business organizations in Minnesota, primarily chambers of commerce. Our beta tests will involve nine or 10 Chambers of Commerce in Minnesota and we’ll tinker with it and then roll it out statewide in mid-February to coincide with the beginning of our competition.

One feature that we’re really trying to build into our small business efforts is more of an involvement in communities. A large company doesn’t need to rely on a community public health professional for resources or advice on how to do things, but a 90-person manufacturer does, and we’re trying to build those relationships. We have found that we think there are plenty of terrific wellness advocates, programs and policies out there that small businesses can work with.

NPH: Do you have metrics yet for determining your success?

Tom Mason: No, and it’s because it's too soon. It’s one of the, if I may be so bold as to say, mistakes that smaller businesses make. They’re looking for an ROI that is instant, they want to have savings in their health insurance, and they want to have productivity up, they want to have absenteeism down immediately. It’s not. Although we’re always looking for ways to measure it and we’re trying to figure out ways to do that in a meaningful way, I would say that the measurement that we have right now is largely process-oriented. We’re building communication, we’re building infrastructure. I think for this year and probably a couple years to go, that process of building infrastructure is probably the best way to measure our ROI. But if five years from now people aren’t seeing improved productivity then we have to reevaluate what we’re doing.

NPH: How do you attract people who need coaxing to get out and get some exercise?

Tom Mason: Fun. Make it fun and entertaining and emphasize that it’s not just for the people who are in shape. It’s primarily for the people who aren’t. We want the people who are in shape, we want to keep them there and but so key is getting people to make incremental changes. It’s not dramatic. It’s one of the reasons some of our members wanted to pull back from the Biggest Loser concept because we aren’t out there to say, hey, lose a lot of weight and win, it’s to say, you know, lose a little weight, get a little exercise and you’ll realize the value of this competition and why we should do it because what we’re doing is we’re trying to build a long-term culture in companies, and having disappointing competitions will not do that.

NPH: What lessons have you learned so far?

Tom Mason: That wellness is truly a high public purpose and in the dialogue in Washington, DC, and other places, health care tends to be a little polarizing if not downright radioactive these days, and the one safe place that people can talk about it that can bring value and bring reform is through wellness and prevention and well being.

NPH: How has the Congressional Wellness Caucus been helpful?

Tom Mason: There wasn’t one, so we went to Senator Klobuchar and Congressman Paulsen and asked them if they’d be interested in starting one. They get that wellness is in everything that they want to do and they get that wellness is probably not legislative as much as it is educational and we’re trying to use the caucus to be able to bring audiences together in Washington and in various states to press the message.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.