012: Laurie Mitchell – Making the Healthiest Choice the Easiest Choice

Laurie Mitchell is AVP of Global Wellbeing and Health Management at Unum.  I have known of Laurie for over a decade and have admired her ability to create healthy work programs and benefits that actually improve health.  She talks about creating benefits and programs for employees that “make the healthiest choice the easiest choice.” She leads by example in balancing work and home life, and she supports the same for others.  She also values a good night’s sleep – music to my ears! 

Laurie Mitchell is responsible for the design, delivery and management of initiatives that support the wellbeing of Unum’s 10,000 employees and their families in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland. She partners with business leaders and the insurance team to identify strategies to address workforce health and productivity concerns – for both Unum employees and Unum clients.  

ERH:   I am here today with Laurie Mitchell, and she is the AVP of Global Well Being and Health Management at Unum. Previously, she was the director of Health and Productivity at MaineHealth, which is Northern New England’s largest integrated health system. That’s actually where I met Laurie, working in health and wellness years ago. I’m so excited to have you here today. Welcome, Laurie.

Laurie Mitchell:  Thank you. Very happy to be here.

ERH:  Laurie, we can go in many directions based on your vast experience with employee wellness programs, but I’d like to focus on the programs that stand out for you, in terms of employee and family impact, and why?

Laurie Mitchell:  Okay. Well, starting with MaineHealth, it’s a pretty easy question to answer. When I started there in 2004, Maine Health did not have an employee well-being program that served all the employees of the health system. I actually got to create that from scratch.

ERH:  Great opportunity…

Laurie Mitchell:  It was … It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but it happened over the course of several years as we layered on different programs, incentives, and policies, and all those things that come into play in a work site program. Having the opportunity to create something from scratch is not something that comes along very often.

ERH:  Right.

Laurie Mitchell:  Especially with large employers. They tend to have some type of wellness initiative for their employees. That was significant for me. It was highly visible, we had high levels of participation. The program is called, “WOW Rewards”.

We used behavioral economic strategies to engage people, which tend to work very well. Annually, employees completed a health risk assessment, and a screening. We achieved over 90 percent participation in that program, from the eligible employees, which were the employees who were enrolled in the health plan.

ERH:  That’s unheard of, Laurie and I think most people listening would be, “Wow, 90 percent?” That’s impressive.

Laurie Mitchell:  There’s a trick to it.

ERH:   Yes…

Laurie Mitchell:  A lot of programs use incentives to improve their employee engagement in their wellness program. We took an approach that was more of what I’ve heard referred to as a frozen carrot. It’s behavioral economic approach called, “Loss aversion”. Basically, it’s a disincentive. If you don’t participate, then you stand to lose something. At MaineHealth, it was set up in that if employees didn’t complete their health screening and their health assessment that they would pay more for their medical insurance. That tends to get people’s attention.

ERH:  Oh, absolutely.

Laurie Mitchell:  It gets them engaged in that initial part of understanding their health, and if they have any health risks, then it’s: “what can we do to support them?” I would say…that program was one of the highlights of my 11-and-a-half years at MaineHealth, and there are lots of other programs that are layered into that today, and it continues to evolve, since I’ve left. It was probably one of the more significant milestones and achievements of that time.

ERH:  Yes. Many clients I work with are trying to find ways to incent their employees to take health screenings or even basic “Know Your Numbers” programs, and haven’t seen that kind of participation. To know that you built that over time will be refreshing to some ears; knowing it didn’t happen overnight.  You put all the right pieces into place to get there. Some people that I’ve worked with have had their programs in place for six or seven years, and they’re still at maybe 60 or 70 percent participation.

Laurie Mitchell:  It’s a challenge. You have to look at it very holistically, and think about directionally, where are you headed. What sort of inputs and information do you need to guide that journey? Having the data was really important to us because it helped to understand, and that continues to be the case at Unum, it helps to understand where you need to focus your attention and your resources. Also, it enables you to measure progress over time. Are things staying the same? Are they getting better? Are they getting worse? That is just one part of, I think, a much larger program. Screenings, and health assessments, they’re very much foundational, and they’re helpful, but they’re not the be-all, end-all, nor should they define a program.

ERH:  That’s a great point. You get that information, and then what do you do with it? Where does the program take you? What elements are in place to then help a person though that knowledge, or through that particular health status to get to a better health status?

Laurie Mitchell:  Right. You want to build on that information. On the individual level, you want people to take action, if they need to take action. And provide them with the programs, the tools, the resources that enable them to do that, and maybe there are incentives that come into play, as well, to nudge people off in that direction.

Then at the aggregate level, at the population level, you use that data to identify where the needs are, then establish programs that address those needs.

ERH: Yes, and another piece is that there are partners in this. Right? Regardless of which carrier you use, most have support programs in place for people, so if someone doesn’t have their own programs onsite, then there are places to go through partnering with your carrier and with other healthcare delivery systems.

Laurie Mitchell:  Absolutely. You need partners, and I would say that any large employer is going to look for their medical plan to partner with them for the delivery of some of the programs and interventions. It could also be community agencies or other suppliers that have a program that you may elect to bring in, or make available to your employees. The other thing that we’re seeing is an interest and uptake of programs that can be delivered virtually.

ERH:  Yes.

Laurie Mitchell:  This is either web based, or digital; perhaps a smart phone application. More and more people prefer to engage that way, so that becomes a necessity for programs. Not everyone can go to a class at 5:30 on Wednesday for eight or ten weeks.

ERH:  Exactly.

Laurie Mitchell:  You need to provide other mediums to engage people. Employers need to look at that as an option for people.

ERH:  I’m glad you brought that up because I think, I’d love to get into some of your insights on where you are today at Unum, working with a global population. What are some of things, or maybe one of the things that you’re most excited about?

Laurie Mitchell: Yes, this has been interesting because Unum has had facility based resources, so on-site fitness centers and on-site health resource centers to serve the employees who physically work at those locations. That’s great. I think that’s a great start. Today, when we think about what we’re going to do for Unum, programs have evolved to, how do you deliver those types of programs and resources to an enterprise? The way people work today is changing. Not everyone comes into the office every day. Even if they are assigned to a home office location, they may have a flexible work schedule. They may be a work-at-home employee.

ERH:   Right.

Laurie Mitchell:  They may work in one of our field offices, or in the UK or Ireland. Very dispersed workforce, which is not unusual for a global organization. Our challenge has been, how do we meet everyone’s needs?

Beyond sort of those bricks and mortar resources that have been provided in the past, and they’ll be provided going forward. But we’re really thinking about, how to deliver programs to everybody, wherever, whenever, they need it.

ERH: Have you seen any exciting examples?

Laurie Mitchell:  Yeah. I tend to think in terms of three buckets. The Program bucket. This is where there are resources available to all employees across the enterprise, and maybe down the road, also available to their family members. There’s the environment and policy bucket, because you still need to consider the physical work environment for those people who come into the office every day, and how the environment supports their efforts to be healthy. How do we make the healthiest choice, the easiest choice? That’s everything from what we serve in our cafeterias, and our vending machines; and at meetings, to our tobacco free policy, and our on-site fitness center. We have walking work stations, also available to employees.

ERH:  Those are popular.

Laurie Mitchell:  Yeah. Yeah, they are very popular, and we have requests for additional ones, so that is something that we’re considering. Especially here in Portland, Maine, in the winter.

ERH:  That’s so true.

Laurie Mitchell:   You may not be a member of the fitness center, so with a walking desk you can walk, and do your work at the same time. That’s been very popular. There are programs for environment and policy, and the incentives and recognition piece that is important in establishing that nudge, that people need to participate in programs. 

We also need to tell our stories; those success stories that inspire others. One of the things that we’re starting with, is to have a wellness portal, which is kind of the norm these days, I would say for most employers, but not something that Unum has had up until now. That’s something that we’re launching this year, is an access point for all employees across the enterprise to engage in wellbeing.

ERH:  That’s great. I bet people are excited about that.

Laurie Mitchell:  They will be when we announce it!

ERH:  Good point!

 I want to spend a couple of  minutes to touch on maybe two things. One, what are some things that you do in your life to maintain work/life balance? Although I’ve heard the term, “Work-Life Balance”, is sort of not really even possible. It’s more about how we integrate our work, and our home life, right? And, two, is there anything that you’ve learned about in looking wellness benefits that you find exciting?

Laurie Mitchell:  Okay. First, how do I personally establish work-life balance for myself, or integrate my professional life and my personal life? I am maybe different than a lot of people. I have pretty clear boundaries around my work life. When I’m at work, I’m at work, and then when I’m home, I’m home. I try to be fully present in both places. It’s rare that I take my work home with me.

ERH:  That’s great.

Laurie Mitchell:  I might work from home, at times. That’s by choice, or necessity. If there’s a blizzard, and the office is closed, but I’ve always, I think, functioned that way. I’d say, it’s pretty intentional.

ERH: Terrific.

Laurie Mitchell:  It works well for me. I do think the lines for many people have blurred, between their professional and home life. It’s easy to take work home with you and vice versa. We’re people, and things don’t necessarily start and stop at home, or at work. Technology has caused those lines to blur a lot.

ERH:  Absolutely.

Laurie Mitchell:  One thing that, even as an organization that we’re thinking about is, how do you provide flexibility for people to work where they need to at any point in time. Whether it’s in the office or at home; early mornings or later in the evening. Technology allows people to do that. I think it’s a very individual, that people need to figure out how to manage what is best for them. For me, I’ve been pretty intentional over the course of my career, in how I manage that.

ERH:  That is good.

Laurie Mitchell:                 The other thing that I am extremely protective of is my sleep. I’m one of those people that needs seven, eight hours a night. If I don’t get it, I’m not performing at my best. Most of the time, I set some pretty clear boundaries around my sleep because without it, I’m not at my best.

ERH:                                            That is music to my ears, Laurie. It’s just powerful. Many people don’t realize the importance of sleep and its impact on everything we do. We feel like we can push things off.  I remember the first time I heard about the studies on college students that don’t sleep for weeks on end, because of studying, and then test at the same level of dexterity as somebody who’s legally impaired. It is the same for us working.  There are a lot of tired people in our work places…everywhere. It’s great to hear that you’ve targeted that early on.

It seems, to me, to be about empowering people to balance their lives and work responsibilities whenever possible.

Laurie Mitchell:  Yes, it’s important in allowing people to sort of find that time to do something for themselves; whether it’s to exercise, or to go to a kid’s sporting event in the afternoon.

ERH:  Right.

Laurie Mitchell:  Then maybe they check in with work later in the evening for a couple of hours. That works for them, at that point in their life. It’s probably a good thing to give people that type of flexibility, if their work environment allows for it.

ERH:  Yes. It’s trickier if they’re in a situation where they have to be physically present, like answering a phone or serving customers in person. Even then, I’ve seen some pretty amazing gymnastics around that, with people being able to juggle those things.

Laurie Mitchell:  It’s incredible in people’s busy lives, what they’re able to accomplish, if you give them the flexibility to do it.

ERH:  And the trust. Yes, exactly.

Laurie Mitchell:  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERH:  So, is there anything that we haven’t talked about relative to this topic that you’re excited about, or that you would just like to share with people who are maybe in this same area of work, Laurie?

Laurie Mitchell:  Yes. There are a lot of things that I’m excited about. I’m still trying to figure out and assess the role that technology plays in wellbeing, and health management for people. It is not entirely clear yet, but I do think that there’s a big place for it. We’re trying to figure that out, as well. There are a lot of different startup organizations that are trying to solve for different types of health issues, and behaviors, and … Well, telemedicine’s not new, but still not highly utilized, so how does that figure into the mix for an employer, and for the employee, knowing that there’s a growing preference amongst the workforce to engage that way, from a technology perspective?

Not that there still won’t be some intensive interventions that require a person. I think that there will still be a need for that, but technology does allow us to do things a little bit differently. Actually, maybe preferable for people. I think that’s pretty exciting on the horizon, and there already are some early adopters. We are certainly looking, and seeing what might be a good fit for our organization right now.

That is probably one of the more exciting things, with continued focus on the work environment and how that supports people’s efforts to be healthy. If somebody is coming into the office every day, they’re spending about 60 percent of their waking hours in the workplace. I think there’s a great opportunity for employers to seriously look at how the work environment supports health. Whether it’s food that’s served, whether it’s opportunities to be physically active, or opportunities for people to take breaks, when they need them.

It all matters. That’s another area that’s exciting, and often doesn’t get enough attention. We expect people to rely on willpower and self-control, a little bit too much, rather than really helping them make those healthier choices, making them really easy, removing all the barriers. For me, those are two areas that I tend to focus on quite a bit.

ERH:  I love that. Particularly, that you ended with environment because that’s the work that I’m personally closest to today. It is powerful when you, to your point, remove the barriers and allow people to have choices at their fingertips for healthy eating options, for meetings, and doing their work. It’s great to hear that. Especially, with an organization as large as Unum.

                                                      I appreciate you supporting The Art of the Break, and for sharing some of your experiences with us today. I just want to thank you for being here.

Laurie Mitchell:  Thank you for including me. This has been fun.