Employee health: Apps bring wellness messaging and behavioral change into the moment


Many doctoral dissertations collect dust on the shelf.

Not Roxane Hearn’s. She is living out her research on “Exercise Adherence Among Active Working Women” and the use of apps to encourage movement.

Now, skillfully using a wellness app, she is helping staff stay healthy so they can focus on the needs of Homeland residents.

Roxane – known to staff as Dr. Rox – leads, educates, and supports Homeland Center’s staff in taking control of their health and wellness. When the pandemic arrived, she adjusted her methods to acknowledge the daily personal and professional pressures confronting health care workers.

“You meet people where they’re at and ask how to best support them in that stage of change and within their current set of circumstances” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just education; other times it’s in a role of accountability. Many of the health goals they set in the beginning of 2020 were put on hold due to the pandemic. When their health priorities shifted, she provided guidelines as needed so they could adapt, but she also let them know she was still available when they were ready to shift the focus back to their pre-pandemic goals.”

Still, the message of prevention and management to attain and sustain a healthier lifestyle didn’t change. The keys to success – sleeping, managing stress, healthy eating, mindfulness, and physical activity – remain constants for those trying to reverse health conditions, minimize chronic symptoms, get off of medications, and improve their overall well-being.

In 2021, Dr. Rox launched Homeland’s first app-based wellness challenge, focusing on mindfulness of key factors in health. During this wellness challenge participants tracked and logged their mood, sleep, and physical activity on a daily basis. Through tracking, they could spot trends and connections between such factors as a good night’s sleep, if they were too sedentary, and if their mood was trending positively, or if they were having trouble coping with life’s stressors. This wellness challenge was supported by online training tools provided through the Homeland EAP program which allowed employees to further develop skills necessary to manage their real-life demands and the stressful times we were living in.

Texting was the key to success, and Dr. Rox found she could utilize a platform Homeland was already using to share messages and manage their workforce. She was able to schedule and send texts at critical times when the message might coincide with the recipients’ frame of mind. For instance, a message on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve reminded recipients of the power of alcohol to deplete the immune system. Or, a lunchtime message might prompt the reader to consider a healthy choice.

“We call that being able to provide real-time support,” Dr. Rox said. “That’s key in health behavior change.”

The average American checks their cell phone 262 times a day, she notes, and unlike emails, they are read immediately.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to help cultivate behavior change,” she said.

Dr. Rox’s education and research have taught her that people need the “why” behind their wellness recommendations. Not just the ‘how”. When they reach the “volitional” stage of health behavior change they need group support, action planning, and coping skills to adapt as their plans hit obstacles along the journey of sustaining the newly adopted behavior.

Capital Blue Cross supplies Homeland with free use of the Walker Tracker app, through which the app based wellness challenges are run. The user-friendly app allows employees to join team challenges while entering private information, such as rating their activity, sleep, moods, water intake, and quality of their meals.

Users can access educational questions and informative articles as well as post and view pictures for inspiration and ideas. Scrolling through can even motivate users to make healthier choices, perhaps deciding to forego the Oreos and try a luscious seasonal fruit they saw on the app instead.

“This has been a fun and effective way to expand our reach and bring employees from different lines of business together,” Dr. Rox said. “They get competitive, support one another, and have found it instrumental in helping them becoming mindful in the steps they are taking to achieve their health and wellness goals. Mobile technology has allowed us to effect change in real-time.”

From June 19 to Aug. 14, Homeland staffers can participate in the Destination Vacation Challenge, virtually traveling to nine global islands as they log their daily steps. It takes 570,000 steps to reach all nine destinations, including Bora Bora and Santorini Island, Greece, and participants can see where they stand in relation to others.

The app even converts activities such as gardening and cleaning into equivalent steps for those without a step-tracking device.

“It’s all about mindfulness,” Dr. Rox said. “When you are mindful you are more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It allows you to check-in with yourself and make more meaningful adjustments to help you move more, manage your stress, and even relate to others and oneself with kindness and compassion.”

In further support of teaching employees to become more mindful, free access to a new meditation app, made possible through a Penn State Health Initiate with long-term care facilities, will be made available to employees this month.

Dr. Rox plans to pair this resource with text messaging to send suggestions for specific five-minute meditations relevant to what employees may need in the moment.

“I can send a meditation suggestions to their phone in real-time, and in the midst of a stressful shift they might think, ‘That’s right, let me stop & take a few deep breaths’, she said. “Then you start to influence behavior change in real-time when employees need it most.”

Attention to real-time behavior change through mindfulness strengthens Homeland’s power to sustain an atmosphere devoted to quality of care and the well-being of residents.

“The better we can take care of the health and well-being of the staff, the better care they will take of the residents,” she said. “The healthier and happier the employee population, then the better equipped they are to care for the residents.”

Click here to view the Homeland Destination Vacation Step Challenge flyer.