An Arizona State University (ASU) team of interdisciplinary researchers was recently awarded a one-year planning grant from the National Science Foundation for $150,000 to develop a prototype of the “future workstation.” With wellness programs on the rise and quickly becoming somewhat of a mainstay in the corporate world, ASU researchers began to ask big questions about how they might improve wellness initiatives.
Here’s our take on the ASU grant and how the team’s research can help improve the return on investment (ROI) of a workplace wellness program:
Asking All the Right Questions for Program Improvements
First and foremost, the right questions are being asked about how to improve the overall impact, engagement, functionality, and economic cost of workplace wellness programs. While most businesses have some type of wellness program in place, these initiatives are often lacking in certain areas. The problem is, most employers have very little awareness of where they might drive program improvements.
By honing in on where these businesses are missing the mark, the hope is that we can begin to develop a better understanding of the steps employers need to take to further develop their wellness programs, increase their employee engagement, and ultimately improve their return on investment.
Increasing Accessibility to All Members of the Workforce
One of the team’s goals is to increase accessibility to all members of the workforce, hoping to improve engagement in wellness programs and in turn, ROI. Here’s how Pavan Turaga, interim director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at ASU and faculty member leading the initiative, spoke about increasing accessibility:
“We seek to move corporate wellness practices to include interventions that are implemented directly at the site of work, in participants’ offices, their desks, their workstations. While people may choose to go to specific therapists outside their workplace, thus raising questions of access, we cannot think of a better place to intervene than in the site of work itself. By focusing on interventions that can be deployed on-site, we reduce the reliance on external access to facilities that limit accessibility for lower-income employees.”
Improving accessibility by implementing wellness practices directly to the site of work (offices, desks, workstations) will hopefully shift the cost burden away from employees. Better access to wellness programs will help improve engagement and ensure cost doesn’t limit access and willingness to participate for lower-income employees.
Leveraging Technology to Improve Wellness
The ASU research team also plans to explore utilizing inexpensive artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor technologies to hopefully allow for more comprehensive interactions and wellness readings. For example, leveraging machine learning techniques may enable researchers to use simple pressure sensors embedded into a chair and cell phone-based assessment of posture to derive data and shed light on movement.
This may also reveal how the workplace wellness coach role changes when given access to new sensors and AI-based tools.
“Our approach will leverage state-of-the-art machine learning methods that will be trained to convert low-grade, noisy, and maybe even incomplete data from inexpensive sensors into information that can shed light on movement and health-related metrics. We also want to study how the job of the workplace wellness coach itself changes when they have access to such new sensors and AI-based tools,” Turaga explained.
Dynamics Expanding Wellness Beyond Corporate Office Walls
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of people have transformed their homes into offices—and it’s brought to light questions about how employers can positively impact health and mental well-being from a distance. Concerns about COVID-19’s impact on mental health, time spent sedentary while quarantining, and other wellness-related issues have become significant among employers.
According to Turaga, mental health should be a focus area, both for the ASU team and for those offering wellness programs to their employees.
“Investigating new solutions for the future of workplace wellness is even more important than what we had prepared for. Considerations of mental health have been brought to fore, which we wish to include as part of our planning process as we go forward,” Turaga said.
Keeping These Key Takeaways from the ASU Grant in Mind
The ASU research team’s workplace wellness grant will no doubt impact (and improve) how we approach corporate wellness programs in the future. In the meantime, some of the more essential takeaways to keep in mind for improving the ROI of a wellness program include:
- Accessibility: Seek to improve access to all members of the workforce
- Technology: Explore the use of AI and machine learning technologies
- Expansion: Expand programs to encompass both physical and mental health
As the ASU research team utilizes their grant to advance workplace wellness, we’ll continue to monitor their progress and report on any new learnings that come up. In the meantime, subscribe to our blog for more insights and ideas on how you can improve your company’s wellness program ROI.