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4 Workplace Wellness Incentives That Work—and 1 That Doesn’t

Employers have every reason to implement workplace wellness programs, including financial incentives under the Affordable Care Act, reduced employee healthcare costs of an estimated $378 annually per employee, and the proven factor of increased employee engagement. But what about employees? What incentives do they have not just to participate, but to participate fully and continuously?

Here are four wellness incentives that have been shown to work over the long-haul, and one that doesn’t.

  • Results-based incentives. Although a bit tricky to navigate because of compliance concerns, results-based incentives can be effective. Generally these kinds of incentives are tied to biometrics—BMI, cholesterol, and blood pressure, for example. As such, results-based incentives represent a “teachable moment about the importance of personal responsibility” according to
  • Incentives for completing an HRA: HRA completion jumps to 63 percent for employers who offer incentives. And 57 percent of employees will complete a Health Risk Assessment when the financial reward is $100 (Source: RAND analysis of health plan claims and screening and wellness data in the Care Continuum Alliance database)
  • Discounts on gym or club memberships. Forty-two percent of employers use these kinds of incentives. However, the incentive would be more effective if the gym were on site. Fifty-nine percent of workers polled in a Workplace Options poll said that an on-site gym helped them to succeed in their wellness goals.
  • Merchandise or gift cards. Regardless of what’s rewarded, 8 in 10 employees reported they preferred gift cards as an incentive according to a study conducted by the Incentive Research Foundation and the Incentive Gift Card Council. Tip: If your workforce is heavily weighted toward Gen X or Y, think about merchandise like gym bags or t-shirts, says the Society for Human Resource Management.

What doesn’t work

So what doesn’t work over the long term? Money. Although 21 percent of employers reported using cash incentives in their wellness programs, studies have shown that financial incentives provide little or no impact on good health behaviors over the long term.

American Journal of Health Promotion: “There is minimal evidence that financial incentives have a direct impact on improved health behaviors.”

Journal of the American Medical Association: “Weight loss during a 16 week intervention was encouraged with economic incentives. These results were not completely sustained.”

Cochran Collaboration Review: “Results and success from incentivized programs dwindled after rewards were dispersed…”

The one place where cash does seem to work is in smoking cessation programs. One survey found that participants receiving financial incentives in a smoking cessation program had higher rates of cessation 18 months later than the control group.

2013 survey by Aon Hewitt found that nearly 70 percent of employers used some kind of incentive to drive health behavioral change. What kind of incentive you use depends on your workplace wellness goals, workplace culture, the demographics of your workforce, and your budget. Clearly, this is an area where a one-size-fits-all approach won’t be effective. But when the right program is in place, the benefits to your workplace, your workforce and your bottom line are huge.

Holly Glowaty is the Marketing Programs Manager at Marketing Innovators International, Inc.  She consults with experts in wellness and health to design programs that are effective and engaging. Holly has worked in the sports and marketing industries since receiving her Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from Loyola University.

For a deep dive into workplace incentives, including regulation of incentives:

Survey conducted by RAND Health, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and Health and Human Services: