By Sheryl Smolkin
Read this article and comments at Moneyville.ca
If you made New Year’s resolutions, chances are that losing weight and getting healthier are somewhere on the list. An increasing number of Canadian employers also have improving employee wellness on their 2012 wish list and are offering financial incentives to help them meet this objective.
According to the Towers Watson 2011/12 Staying@ Work survey 80 per cent of U.S. companies plan to offer financial rewards in 2012 for people who participate in health management programs and activities. Cash incentives have not been as popular in Canada, but 26 per cent of Canadian companies are planning to offer financial rewards to wellness participants in 2012.
Wendy Poirier is the Towers Watson Canadian Health and Group Benefits Leader. She says, “First and foremost, employers want to get employees off the couch. They are trying to tie financial incentives into the social aspect because we know if your co-worker becomes active and fit, you are more likely to join in.”
To harness the power of the group, companies are developing programs where people from different shifts, geographies or business units are competing as a team. For example, there could be a “Biggest Loser” or smoking cessation contest that pits the west against the east with the winning team members receiving an additional $100 or more deposited to their Health Care Spending Account.
Lotteries are another successful strategy, says Poirier. “People love to play the game of chance, so an employer may put the name of every employee who completes a health risk assessment in a draw for an iPad.”
Fitness challenges may be a once a year campaign or part of a full year integrated program. Software systems are available that allow employees to self-report participation in various activities for points, and points can be cashed in for prizes, gift certificates or cash at various intervals (i.e. quarterly or once a year.)
Employers measure success by year over year increased participation (i.e. number of people who complete a health risk assessment); changes in the types or prevalence of different disease states; number of people on short and long term disability; and absenteeism rates.
The Staying@Work data reveals that financial incentives are clearly effective in boosting a relatively simple (and potentially one-off) action for a clear reward, such as completion of a health risk appraisal or a biometric assessment. However, prizes and other rewards might not be enough to drive participation in programs that require fundamental changes in health behaviours, such as disease management or smoking cessation programs.
So how can employers encourage longer term more sustainable changes leading to better workforce health? Poirier says it helps if the boss walks the talk. “Our research suggests that a work environment that supports and cultivates a healthy lifestyle through leadership by example might be the most important factor in building a workplace culture of health.”