Companies turn to brain games to tackle work stress

September 24, 2012: 1:58 PM ET

Some employers are expanding their wellness programs to include brain function exercises to help employees manage stress amid increased demands on their time and attention.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

FORTUNE -- Jeanne Siersdorfer is no stranger to distraction. The 59-year-old government relations specialist at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio works in an open office environment where it's all too easy to latch onto cubicle neighbors' conversations.

But Siersdorfer has a secret weapon: hours of computer time she's logged balancing a virtual basketball while other objects fly across the computer screen.

"I catch myself and say, 'focus, focus, focus.' I visualize that crazy basketball and trying to balance it and the next thing I know, I'm back in my zone at work," she says.

Unlike other office workers who may play solitaire or Words With Friends on the sly, Nationwide actually encourages Siersdorfer to play the basketball game, among others, and has made it a part of its wellness plan. The games, which are produced by a company called Brain Resource and part of a package called MyBrainSolutions, aim to teach concentration and stress management techniques to boost executive function and memory, increase positive thinking, and achieve other brain-enhancing goals.

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As more and more jobs rely on knowledge work, creativity, and communication skills, it's not enough to have workers sitting at their desks -- they must also be mentally sharp, emotionally present, and free from distraction. The answer for some: brain training.

"The brain, we're finding out, is much like muscles in the body. If you exercise it, it gets better. You actually grow neurons," says Gregory Bayer, chief executive of Brain Resource, which created MyBrainSolutions. "If you can teach people how to manage those multitasking and stressful environments optimally, you're going to preserve their health."

MyBrainSolutions users begin with an assessment of their brain to provide a baseline along four axes: emotion, thinking, self-regulation, and feeling. Based on the resulting profile, the software suggests specific games to build up the areas of cognitive function that are weakest. The system tracks users' progress, giving points for playing time and badges when users reach milestones.

Cerner Corporation, an electronic medical records provider based in Kansas City, Mo., introduced MyBrainSolutions as a pilot program this summer, aiming to offer support to its young, hard-driving workforce of about 9,500 in the U.S. Cerner may eventually expand the program to its global workforce, including staffers in areas like India, where seeking mental health care comes with a considerable stigma.

"Usually, people don't engage in this type of activity until they're not functioning well; they're headed toward a diagnosis," says David Nill, vice president and chief medical officer at Cerner. "Brain Resource brought on an ability for consumers to engage any time, any place, on their own terms without having to talk to anybody."

Over 1,000 Cerner employees signed up for the program within the first two weeks and currently the company has 2,500 users, more than Nill anticipated. It's a key area of interest because behavioral health issues such as depression and anxiety affect 30% of Cerner's employees and family members and cost about $2 million in health expenses. The most expensive cases, which represent about 5% of Cerner's workers, involve stress-related conditions, according to Nill.

"I've been aware of the science for quite a while. It's very compelling," Nill says. "It's cognitive behavioral therapy; you're just doing it without them having to sit in a therapist's office."

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Self-help and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have a long history with each other, according to Jesse Wright, a psychiatry professor at the University of Louisville whose research on computer-assisted cognitive therapy was cited by Brain Resource in a white paper on the scientific basis for the program.

"Wide spread use of CBT computer programs does have the potential of helping people who do not have psychiatric illness but could benefit from the practical strategies of CBT to enhance problem solving, stress management, etc.," Wright wrote to Fortune in an email. "A caution is that people with real problems such as depression would likely need genuine, well-constructed help programs to relieve symptoms."

At Nationwide, a case study found that workers who played the games regularly increased their positive thinking by 5%, boosted social skills by 8%, and heightened their emotional resilience by 9%, based on self-reported responses to Brain Resource questions. The company's bottom line improved as well, with an 8% improvement in productivity and 7% decrease in absenteeism, also self-reported.

Beyond the immediate benefit of improving brain function, the suite of games can work in tandem with other wellness programs to help individuals achieve other health goals, such as weight loss, exercise, or quitting smoking. Employees can set goals within the MyBrainSolutions software and track their progress, in addition to working on cognitive areas that will help them stick to the plan.

"The best outcomes are when people are doing this along with another program," says Kathleen Herath, associate vice president for health and productivity at Nationwide. "If I'm trying to do a weight loss program, learning what motivates my brain and how my brain functions is the key to helping change my behavior."

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The fun, game atmosphere of MyBrainSolutions helped Nationwide achieve another goal: making the employee assistance program more appealing and stigma-free. While overall EAP use at Nationwide was at 7.7% in 2007 -- already higher than that year's industry average of 4% -- after introducing MyBrainSolutions in 2009, EAP use skyrocketed to 18.4% in 2011.

MyBrainSolutions contributed to greater effectiveness of the broader wellness offerings, Herath says. For instance, Nationwide's percentage of obese and overweight workers has declined between 2010 and 2012.

"In 2012, for the first time more than 70% of the population is low risk. Our high-risk population is at an all time low of 7%," says Herath. "This is a great mechanism to do by itself. It's a great mechanism to do with counseling. There are applications to it that run across the gamut from our most healthy to our most critical."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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