Feature Article - September/October 2015

Healthy Benefits

How Incentives Can Increase Your Bottom Line & Decrease Bulging Waistlines

By Rick Dandes


It's in everyone's best interest for employees to live healthier lives, particularly at a time when the health of American workers is declining and is expected to get worse. Approximately one in three employees suffers from symptoms of depression, according to studies by the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and Duke University. But that's not all: One in four smokes; one in five experiences difficulty sleeping; one in five is treated for high blood pressure; one in seven has high levels of cholesterol; and nearly half have not exercised in more than one month. All of these health risks make employees less productive and have helped cause health insurance premiums to almost double since 1999.

One opportunity for achieving a healthier and more productive life is to participate in a wellness program, said Michelle Smith, vice president, marketing, O. C. Tanner, of Salt Lake City, Utah. "Properly designed wellness programs can help corporations reduce employee benefit expenses, increase productivity and positively affect the corporate bottom line; and employee morale measurably improves in companies that offer wellness programs."

Ultimately, implementing the right wellness program design that is aimed at engaging and enabling employees to accomplish their wellness goals creates the benefit of better lives for the employees through health, happiness and engagement, noted Amy Kramer, of Maritz Motivational Solution in Fenton, Mo. Kramer, a solution design strategist, said this can be proved through analytics, which include better health scores and outcomes from employees, more time in the office and more efficient, higher employee satisfaction through engagement scores.

While the primary benefit of effective wellness programs is to reduce the cost of healthcare in terms of the cost of insurance premiums, co-pays, lost work time due to illnesses and other factors, there are secondary benefits as well, added Ira Ozer, founder and CEO, Engagement Partners of Chappaqua, N.Y. "People who are properly nourished and fit generally feel better and have more energy than those who are not and as a result, are more productive," Ozer said. "Additionally, employers that offer health benefits and effective wellness programs are considered to be more appealing than those that don't and are likely to enjoy higher employee retention, loyalty and advocacy."

The Role of Incentives

Although the benefits of a wellness program should be fairly obvious, we don't always do what's best for ourselves without some nudging. A majority of American workers say they would enroll in employer wellness programs to improve personal health—if they were offered an incentive, according to a survey by Workplace Options. The survey results showed 92 percent of respondents who worked for employers offering wellness initiatives were aware that programs were available to them. However, the survey also went on to say that utilization of these programs is less than 5 percent on average without incentives from employers. So the key to getting employees to participate in a wellness program may be to not just provide them with incentives, but engage them through multiple approaches.

It's in everyone's best interest for employees to live healthier lives, particularly at a time when the health of American workers is declining and is expected to get worse.

Wellness, of course, is very personal, said Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications, Michael C. Fina, of Long Island City, N.Y. "So I think you have to offer several options and let employees choose the path to wellness that's right for them."

For one person it might be weight management; but that might not be ideal for another person, whose goal is to quit smoking.

Incentives may take the form of charging less for plan contributions, offering lower coverage levels, providing reimbursement for wellness programs, giving premium discounts to employees who engage in healthy lifestyles and using merchandise incentives such as pedometers, yoga mats, T-shirts, water bottles, golf equipment and more for participation and registration, or when other goals are met. Incentives to decrease tobacco use are the most common and are used by many employers that offer wellness incentives.

"The new challenge for employers," Smith said, "is to find a way for employees to adopt these healthier behaviors over the long term rather than generating temporary interest around an incentive. This is why wellness coaching is an important part of any workplace wellness solution. People can be motivated by rewards or a reduction in health-care costs at the outset, but what the coaches understand is how to identify their intrinsic motivation and help relate their health goals back to that personal goal."