Employers Focus on Wellness Participation, Not Outcomes

By Stephen Miller Oct 14, 2008
Nearly two-thirds of surveyed U.S. employers provide incentive programs for their employees to promote improved health and productivity behaviors, according to a report by the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), a not-for-profit supplier of health and productivity research. But many organizations are focusing on employee participation rather than the end goal of improved health.

IBI's study, Employer Incentives for Workforce Health and Productivity, examined the incentives and disincentives offered by more than 500 employers impacting approximately 5 million employees to promote a healthy and productive workforce. “Our research indicates that employers often aren’t strategic in connecting the incentives and the disincentives they use with their own views about which ones are most effective,” says IBI President Thomas Parry. “Rather than focus on improved health-related outcomes, which is far more important to an employer’s bottom line, the most frequent program goal often is limited to encouraging employee participation in health and productivity programs.”

Among the key findings from the study:

    • Employers commonly provide incentives to promote employee involvement in health and productivity.Overall 73 percent of employers surveyed provide at least one incentives program, with mid-sized employers providing the most.

    • Only 19 percent use disincentives—penalizing employees who fail to cooperate in health and productivity programs.Employers use cash-based and benefits-related strategies most frequently; prizes and gifts are less common, while salary and job disincentives are used by only a few.

    • Encouraging participation was identified as the most important goal, rather than improved outcomes.This indicates confusion about the best ways to measure and reward outcomes.

    • Corporate culture is a significant determinant of employer behavior. Many employers are in the early stages of implementing these programs. However, the results point to the need for better communication and corporate reinforcement of the importance of health to both the employee and corporate bottom lines.

    • Substantial sums are invested in incentives and disincentives programs, with about 50 percent of respondents investing more than $200 per participant, per year, and more than one in five valuing them at more than $400 annually. More than 40 percent said they plan to increase the dollar value of their incentive-based programs.

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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