What Motivates Employees to Get Serious About Wellness Plans?

Some companies have turned to coercive or mandatory wellness programs to push employees toward better health. And some employee groups have pushed back. Experts suggest employers and HR leaders should be careful to design programs that reward healthy behaviors rather than punish unhealthy ones. And now there’s proof that approach works.

In a September 17 article in Human Resource Executive, “Wellness and the Bottom Line,” reporter Carol Patton wrote that if you want a wellness program that slashes healthcare costs, it must include meaningful incentives and offer comprehensive services that include chronic disease management. However, she points out, don’t expect any savings for several years. These are the key results of a five-year observational study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health Plan that is discussed in her article.

The study was conducted between 2007 and 2011. It focused on two groups: an intervention group composed of 13,627 UPMC workers who were continuously enrolled in MyHealth, UPMC’s chronic disease-management and wellness program, and a comparison group consisting of 4,448 workers employed at a different healthcare organization who had UPMC Health Plan benefits, but not the MyHealth program.

Participants in MyHealth were divided into three risk levels -- high, medium and low -- based on health factors such as weight or blood pressure activity. Those who shifted from the highest risk to lowest risk group decreased their annual medical spending by $250 a month, or $3,000 a year, while those moving from the medium-risk to low-risk group saved about $20 a month, or $250 each year.

Patton states in the article that the takeaway for HR from this study is that in order to produce cost savings, wellness programs need to be designed as a comprehensive health management and support program and initially offer incentives that grab employees’ attention. Incentives are not a silver bullet – they have to constantly evolve to reflect higher levels of engagement.

During the first year of the study, employees in the intervention group were offered a deductible credit of $200 a year (for individual coverage) or $400 (for family coverage). As the study progressed, so did the incentives. In 2009, employees received points for completing wellness activities. Those with 100 or more points received either a deductible credit of $500 for individual coverage or $1,000 for family coverage. By 2011, both the incentive and requirements had grown. Those receiving at least 200 points received the maximum deductible credit of $1,000 a year for individual coverage or $2,000 a year for family coverage. The incentives were contingent upon participants receiving an annual health assessment along with a biometric screening, and engaging in the Take a Healthy Step program that provides more than 140 health and wellness activities.

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