Wellness Incentive Programs
I recently became employed at a local business that offers health insurance. While that alone is something to be grateful for, my employer also offers a wellness incentive program that can lower my family’s insurance premium. Employer wellness programs used to mean just having a gym in the office or posters on the wall encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Now more companies than ever are using real money, and sometimes penalties, as incentives for workers to get in better shape. Fortunately, our wellness program doesn’t impose any penalties; rather, it is based on the principle of positive reinforcement.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, nearly 90% of employers offer financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward getting healthier. This number is significantly higher than the 57% of companies that offered incentives in 2009. Today’s perks are also worth significantly more. On average, employees can earn up to $521 worth of incentives compared to just $260 five years ago.
New legislation put in place by the Affordable Care Act creates new incentives and builds on existing wellness program policies to promote employer wellness programs and encourage opportunities to support healthier workplaces. These rules support workplace wellness programs including “participatory wellness programs,” which are generally available without regard to an individual’s health status, and “health contingent-wellness programs,” which require individuals to meet a specific standard related to their health to obtain a reward. Examples of the aforementioned programs include programs that reimburse for the cost of membership in a fitness center and programs that provide a reward to those who do not use, or decrease their use of, tobacco.
To successfully promote participation and healthy behavior changes, employers should put employees in a position to gain or achieve something tangible. Plenty of people want to lose weight, quit smoking, or reduce stress. However, those goals often seem out of reach. Offering an incentive – such as a fifty dollar gift card for following a wellness program for a set period of time or an extra paid vacation day for achieving a specific priority health goal – presents an attainable goal with a tangible reward.
With an ever-expanding population of obese individuals, I feel that wellness incentive programs can do a lot for the individual and the company they work for. On the other hand, critics of these types of programs argue that some don’t offer enough protection to consumers or flexibility for businesses. In the following section, I will call out a number of pros and cons to wellness incentives.
First, experts say that while action-based incentive models can motivate employees to take the important steps towards changing their unhealthy behaviors, some incentives don’t encourage healthy behavior beyond the completion of the required programs. Second, employees may like the freedom to choose their health activities rather than having to talk to a nurse or participate in an official program to get the reward. A wellness program that lays out a trail to follow will have more success keeping people involved. Too many options; however, can overwhelm employees, and companies can waste money on programs that won’t effectively address workers’ biggest health problems. Third, employers such as mine offer rewards for taking steps to hit optional benchmarks for cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight. Steps can include enrolling in a weight-management program and reducing BMI. In this type of system, employees are financially motivated to improve their health, instead of getting penalized for not being perfect. Unfortunately, rewarding employees for simply showing up to a wellness program doesn’t mean that they will actually get healthier, and there’s a long way to go from a “morbidly obese” BMI of 40 to a healthy under 25.
A well-designed incentive program conveys a positive commitment from the employer to the employee. Employees need to know you care about their health and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to not only get them healthy but keep them that way. I challenge you to take a look to see if your company offers any type of wellness incentive. If not, develop a personal wellness program that rewards you for meeting your individual health goals.