Rewards at the office can keep workers fit

Cash incentives: rewards at the office can keep workers fit

Carlin Flora

FOUR TIMES PER YEAR, THE SHIPPING SCALE in the middle of VSM Abrasives’ sandpaper-customizing plant weighs not only products fit to be mailed, but also the company’s employees. “If we haven’t gained weight, we get $25” says Stephanie August, a human-resources manager at the O’Fallon, Missouri, firm. “And if we maintain our weight for a year, we get a paid day off.”

VSM’s voluntary weigh-in exemplifies a growing trend, where companies crushed by health-insurance increases are implementing wellness programs to help employees lose weight, quit smoking and work out. Yearly U.S. health-insurance costs related to obesity alone account for $7.7 billion, according to the Washington Business Group on Health.

Cash incentives are sometimes used to lure workers out of their cubicles. Roger Seehafer, an associate professor of health promotion at Purdue University, says companies must get involved in changing the behaviors that make their employees ill. “Health behavior should be a matter of choice, but I believe in stacking the deck. Companies are in a position to effect change as perhaps few other sectors are,” says Seehafer. Workplace programs ensure higher participation rates and offer opportunities for positive reinforcement.

Financial incentives are unlikely to bring about behavioral changes for everyone, adds Seehafer. Cigarettes are a good example, he says, because the increase in the cost of smoking caused only some people to quit. In the current programs, the corporate vice president may not be as motivated to go after the $25 bonus as the minimum-wage clerk. Seehafer thinks programs offering a variety of incentives are more effective than cold cash.

When wellness programs are well designed, the biggest cash prize of all goes to the company’s balance sheet. In 2002, an analysis of 22 studies showed that the return on investment, in the form of reduced health-care costs, was a staggering 300 percent. The programs also reduce absenteeism and “presenteeism” (where workers show up but are too sick to really produce), Seehafer says.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma built a financial incentive into the wellness program it uses for its 1,300 employees, which offers Weight Watchers at Work meetings. Employees write checks to participate in the 16-week program. If they attend at least 14 weekly sessions, they get their checks back. Since the meetings began in 1999, Blue Cross Blue Shield employees have collectively lost nearly 20,000 pounds.

Eighty-four of those pounds used to belong to Julie Whitewater, 28, a claims examiner. “We keep one another on track,” Whitewater says of her coworkers, who peek into each other’s lunch boxes. “If the Weight Watchers meetings hadn’t been here at work, I never would have started.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group