Safeway Employees Receive Peer Support Through Online Platform

By Kathleen Koster

Safeway launched an online and mobile platform that uses web communities and anonymous peers to encourage individuals in their physical and mental health journeys. The social health platform offers employees and their families access to educational resources, health experts and peer support in condition-specific communities, including alcohol addiction, depression, heart health, cancer, stress reduction, diabetes, obesity, tobacco cessation and caregiver support.

Safeway launched the platform by OneHealth as a pilot program in March 2013. It’s moderated by professional health coaches and offers support from peers. Members can join any community offered, which include behavioral, chronic condition and moderated mental health support.

For Safeway, the OneHealth platform communities are grouped into either emotional and physical health or recovery. Sample communities for emotional and physical health include anxiety support, asthma support, autism support, diabetes support, stress support, pain management support, and veteran support. Recovery community examples are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Gamblers Anonymous.

“Safeway recognized that we weren’t reaching everybody,” explains Dr. Kent Bradley, chief medical officer at Safeway, about why the company decided to implement this platform for its employees and their families. The grocery store chain wanted to find another method to engage workers beyond using print communication and their online web program.

The OneHealth method provided the opportunity to leverage peer support through a mobile device, tablet or computer. The mobile site offers individuals a live feed of discussion in the communities they belong to, as well as instant feedback and emotional support wherever they need it. An advantage of the online communities is they don’t require scheduling coordination and conveniently host support group meeting and education sessions.

“Some individuals may feel comfortable working with peers face-to-face on games-based activities and challenges, but others may feel comfortable in the anonymity of the online platform,” says Bradley.

How it Works

Employees and family members who wish to participate simply register online. To protect their anonymity it’s recommended the individual’s username not be their name. Within 24 hours of registering, the individual receives a friend invite from a OneHealth coach, who identifies himself or herself as such and helps foster the new participant’s entry into various discussion groups.

Participants can also choose to friend other peers in the community. Safeway has several hundred active users on OneHealth and 58% of those have joined at least one condition community and 37% have joined more than one community. In addition, 11% of members are registered via their smartphone and 43% are accessing the site via their mobile phones.

OneHealth’s professional coaches monitor the site through the private, secure and HIPAA-compliant platform. OneHealth coaches monitor feeds for cries for help and search for keywords to reach out to members if they detect an issue.

At the heart of OneHealth is a patent-pending emoticon-based check-in, linked to real-time intervention for high-risk members who need instant support from their peer network. Each time the participant checks into the website they can highlight how they are feeling in an emotional index.

From 28 emotional icons, they select whether they are feeling happy, sad, anxious, etc. If they have friended peers or a coach, those support people will be notified if the participant says they are “craving,” for example. That friend can immediately respond privately to the individual or message through the community group.

“The underpinning of this program is that communities of interest will find an opportunity to connect via the online space. And those communities of interest are centered on a particular condition, such as weight management, anxiety, alcoholism, and pain management,” says Bradley.

Safeway has expanded the scope of these communities beyond health conditions to areas of interest, such as elder care support, which helps people deal with their anxiety and stress as they support their aging parents while working full-time. The company has increased the number of condition communities based on feedback from participants to include programs centered on veteran support and post-traumatic stress, as well as cancer support.

A Safeway dietician offers dietary classes on the platform for people to listen to while interacting with each other in real time. Other employers might use a nutritionist, behaviorist or counselor. Safeway’s dietician has been helpful for employees working at the company’s corporate campus, for example, so they expanded that service to the entire enterprise virtually.

Organic adoption

During the initial adoption period, Safeway has allowed interest and participation to spread through word of mouth, rather than through a top-down approach, where an employer could insist smoking cessation participants use the platform, for example.

“We’ve chosen to make it more low key and have it grow organically,” explains Bradley, who adds, “For the individuals that get engaged, they get highly engaged.”

One anonymous user explains that “we need all the support we can get. Just knowing there are people out there I don’t even know who are wishing me well makes things easier.”

While Safeway hasn’t made participation mandatory, employers may consider using the platform as a requirement for wellness or health programs.

“Employers are increasingly thinking about ways of scaling their disease management programs and incentives designs to enhance engagement in those programs. One way to do that is to encourage people to join a support group online that maintains some sort of anonymity but proves employees have participated in a certain amount of sessions to receive a certain incentive,” suggests Bradley.

The platform offers the ability to track individuals confidentially on the back end to determine whether they are attending the number of required sessions to receive an incentive. Employers could also use participation in the online support group as an alternative to certain outcomes-based programs that focus on improving a behavior or biometric factor.

Further, if an employee population has a certain condition that the employer wants to better manage, such as diabetes, they could tie in online participation as one of the program’s conditions to receiving free diabetic supplies as part of value-based benefit design. Safeway has considered the above approaches, but is not yet pursuing them.

Reprinted from Employee Benefit News

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