Voluminous studies have been conducted about the benefits of successful employee wellness programs.
However, determining the best way to motivate employees to make a long-term commitment to wellness is not always as easy as it sounds. While some employees are eager to participate in workplace changes, wellness incentives may cause negative effects — including resulting in only short-term success, isolating workers and decreasing morale, some industry insiders say.
“The traditional worksite wellness model incentivizes people to participate in one activity — for example, filling out a health-risk assessment — but there’s no incentive to continue after you’ve earned the initial reward,” says Alan Kohll, founder and CEO of TotalWellness in Omaha, Nebraska. His company provides corporate health and wellness services, including biometric screenings, flu shots and a wellness portal.
Traditional incentives work well to jumpstart a wellness program, he says, but they also may carry unforeseen consequences, which may include workers dropping too much weight or practicing unsafe dieting just so they can hit targets.
“Incentives can inadvertently punish workers who don’t participate in wellness activities and can ultimately damage morale,” Kohll says. “Some employees could also be penalized even though they are making progress, while others might practice unsafe dieting practices to hit a certain number and get a payout.”
“Employers should consider other ways to provide incentives that boost employee wellness long-term, like discounting gym memberships or subsidizing healthy options at the cafeteria,” he continues. “Companies can still keep money in their employees’ wallets, but in a more delicate way.”
Harriet Aaronson, associate vice president for Corporate Health & Wellness at The Hartford in Hartford, Conn., agrees with Kohll.
“While we believe self-motivation leads to the most sustained behavior change, we recognize that behavior change can be difficult,” she says. “External motivators can be helpful in getting employees to engage in programs. Many employees who sign up for programs due to an incentive with enough sustained engagement, embrace new, healthier habits long after those programs conclude.”
There is no debate about the fact that the number of businesses offering wellness and incentive programs is steadily increasing, according to the most recent study by BSwift, a benefits software firm in Chicago:
- Eighty-three percent of large employers now provide wellness programs, up from just 52 percent in 2012.
- Among small employers, participation increased from 52 percent two years ago to 78 percent today.
- Twenty-four percent of large employers’ wellness programs now offer outcome-based incentives for employees who meet or exceed outcomes-based biometrics thresholds.
Health insurance premium discounts or credits are offered by 64 percent of large companies using incentives, followed by cash, gift cards and sweepstakes (56 percent).
Even with the cost of incentives, employers usually see a positive return on their wellness program investment. “When employees are healthy, they feel good,” Kohll said. “They’re more motivated and less stressed, which is great for the bottom line. Healthy employees translate into a variety of benefits for employers.”
The Wellness Councils of America, also in Omaha, estimates that wellness programs provide a 3-to-1 return on investment. However, many experts caution that the benefits may not show up for two or three years. Companies are more likely to see slower growth in health-care costs than actual reductions. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act adds another wrinkle.