Getting Corporate Wellness Programs Off the Couch

Health Work Life Balance
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Survey research results that Fidelity Investments released in February created one of those "I told you" so moments for people like me in the employee incentive business.

The Fidelity research shows that U.S. corporations have doubled their spending in the last four years on incentives designed to spur employee participation in wellness programs.

Corporate employers plan to spend an average of $521 per employee on wellness based incentives in 2013, double the per employee average of $260 in 2009.

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Fidelity's research also shows that offerings of wellness program incentives have increased across companies of all sizes.

The results confirm on a national scale what employee incentive advocates have learned from personal experience. Benefit managers as a group are desperate to get employee wellness programs off corporate America's couch and into action reducing medical claims.

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And there's good reason.

Employers are being driven to bankruptcy by rising healthcare costs. They know their employees' poor health habits are the biggest challenge to maintaining affordable benefits, and they're seeing diminishing returns on cost-shifting strategies such as increasing deductibles and co-pays.

But deploying a wellness program successfully isn't as easy as falling off the couch.

Obstacles include privacy and discrimination concerns, union opposition, chief executives who are skeptical about the return on investment, and topping the list – unenthusiastic employees. Participation can be as low as five percent in corporate wellness programs without suitable incentives.

Despite the huge sums at stake in mounting healthcare costs, some discouraged employers have thrown in the towel and opted for nothing more than a discounted gym membership.

But this is no time for slackers.

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So, pick that towel off the floor and aspire to achieve corporate wellness-svelteness.

Benefit managers who make the following three components the foundation for their wellness program will get the biggest bang from their corporate wellness buck.

1) Incent, Incent and Then Incent Some More

Mark Twain once said the way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like and do what you'd rather not.

Who wants to do that?

People need to be motivated. You'd like to believe that a long, healthy life is reward enough. The truth is, a $50 gift card works better. Employers need to find the right incentives to gain and sustain meaningful employee participation in wellness programs. Gift cards, travel vouchers, electronics and other prizes, even additional paid time off and bonus cash can be more powerful motivators than a premium contribution notation on a pay stub. The rewards need to be tangible, fun and tailored to the pay grade of the recipient so that they succeed in changing behavior. The most successful programs incorporate combinations of incentives in order to appeal to the broadest cross-section of the employee population.

2) Think Small (for the biggest ROi)

Achievable, frequently reached objectives work best. Accordingly, rewards must be delivered frequently; so act monthly not annually.

Wellness programs encourage healthy living on a daily, weekly and monthly basis – it's not an annual strategy. Smaller, attainable challenges with monthly rewards that lead to a large annual reward are the most effective. For employers to be successful in driving ongoing behavior changes, they must foster tangible, ongoing, healthier lifestyle changes that can be encouraged and sustained. Ultimately, employees must take on a greater level of ownership for improving wellness and reducing claims. But as with children, getting them to eat vegetables is more easily accomplished with promises of desert. With the right incentives, participation in health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) and biometric screenings can be as high as 80 percent - Maybe we are all still children at heart!

3) Meaningful Touch-Points with a High-Tech Twist

An overarching experiential web site is crucial to success. The online component enables an employer to establish a comprehensive program that articulates goals; keeps the program top of mind; allows employees and employers to get engaged in the program, tracks progress and celebrates success. Incentive program web sites facilitate the gamification of healthy living objectives in a way that makes employee participation easier and more fun. Those employers who simply make a notation on the pay-stub reflecting a premium contribution are missing significant opportunities to help employees positively change their behavior, as there is no actual engagement.

Lower medical claims, higher productivity and happier employees await.

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As CEO of Online Rewards, Michael Levy has been personally involved in the program design for over 250 U.S. and international reward programs for organizations including Fortune 500 global companies and the U.S. government. Online Rewards is a leading provider of incentive and loyalty marketing programs that change behavior. Online Rewards is