Editor's Desk - January/February 2012

Resolving on Carrots

Happy New Year!

It is that time of year again, isn't it? You know what I'm talking about. It's the time of year when resolutions either take hold, or, more likely, start to fade from our remembrance as we come up with other things to occupy our time.

For many around the world, the first of the year represents a time to finally get it together. To finally achieve that elusive thing we've wanted to get done.

And, in America, where two-thirds of the adult population is overweight or obese; where 19.3 percent of the adult population smokes cigarettes; where millions admit to not exercising at all, I'd be willing to bet that a vast majority of those resolutions are to finally eat healthy, stop smoking and start exercising at last.

For companies around the world, partnering on these get-healthy resolutions—whether they're kicking off on Jan. 1, or they're adopted at any other point in the year—has become a mission-critical goal. After all, with the ever-rising cost of health care, and the cost to business of unhealthy employees, anything you can do to improve the outlook can make a difference to the bottom line.

Incentives and rewards have become a part and parcel of wellness programs, as companies seek to induce better, healthier behaviors in their employee populations. Whether it's a reward for taking part in a health assessment, or recognition for engaging in a smoking cessation or weight loss program, companies are finding ways to motivate employees to keep reaching for those resolved-upon goals.

A recent story in The Miami Herald (Dec. 4, 2011) cites Baptist Health South Florida's actions as it tries to engage its 13,000 employees to get healthier. Some of the perks include free round-the-clock gyms and discounted lower-in-fat cafeteria meals.

Unfortunately, as health care costs have continued to climb, some companies have put the healthy carrots back in the fridge and are reaching for the stick. (Baptist Health says it's continuing with the carrot approach.)

A survey of 600 major companies by Towers Watson found that 33 percent were planning to dole out rewards or penalize workers in 2012 or after for problems like higher weight and cholesterol levels. Another 18 percent said they're planning to take similar actions with employees who have chronic diseases. A full two-thirds of the companies said their main challenge in delivering affordable health care is their employees' bad health habits. And many are choosing to penalize those bad habits, most often by passing on a larger portion of health care costs, particularly to smokers.

In the business of incenting, motivating and rewarding people for desired behaviors, we know how powerful a carrot can be to bring about the desired response. And we also know that a stick often backfires, leading to a feeling of alienation—even antagonism—among workers.

But, employers say, if the rewards aren't working, what will?

This is a powerful question. Maybe the nature of the rewards (which seem most often to involve cash rewards or health benefit cost reductions) needs to change. Maybe the way these programs are structured needs to change. After all, you can offer motivation, but you also need to be sure that employees have access to the tools they need to bring about a change in behavior. What do you think will be most effective?

Whatever the immediate future brings, here's to your New Year's Resolutions. Whatever you've resolved—to get fit, to finally learn to sail, to balance the household budget at last—I hope you've built in some tools to get yourself going, and some powerful rewards to keep you motivated as you walk that new path.

Happy 2012!

Emily Tipping
Editorial Director,


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