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Employee Health Incentive Programs on the Rise

work out . / Credit: Exercise Image via Shutterstock

U.S. businesses are upping the ante in their bid to keep employees healthy, new research finds.

A study by Aon Hewitt revealed that well over half of U.S. companies provide some sort of incentive to employees who participate in health improvement and wellness programs. Specifically, 84 percent offer employees incentives for taking a health risk questionnaire and almost two-thirds offer an incentive for participation in biometric screenings.

The use of monetary incentives has increased dramatically over the past year, according to the research. This year, nearly 60 percent of employers surveyed used monetary incentives to promote participation in wellness and health improvement programs, up from 37 percent in 2011.

Of companies that offer incentives, the study shows 58 percent offer some form of enticement for completing lifestyle modification programs, such as quitting smoking or losing weight.  In addition, about one-quarter offer incentives for progress toward meeting acceptable ranges for biometric measures, such as blood pressure, body mass index, blood sugar and cholesterol.

While programs and tools like health risk questionnaires and biometric screenings can make employees more aware of their health status, Jim Winkler, chief innovation officer for health and benefits at Aon Hewitt, said they alone won't move the needle when it comes to becoming more healthy and mitigating health care costs.

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"Incentives solely tied to participation tend to become entitlement programs, with employees expecting to be rewarded without any sense of accountability for better health," Winkler said. "To truly impact employee behavior change, more and more organizations realize they need to closely tie rewards to outcomes and better results rather than just enrollment."

The research found that businesses should be encouraging employees to actually improve their health, not just learn about what might be wrong. While more than 80 percent of employers provide an incentive to complete a health questionnaire, the study shows less than 10 percent offer something extra for those willing to address the results of the questionnaire.

"Employers know that eight health behaviors, including risks such as lack of physical activity and failure to complete recommended preventive screenings, drive 15 chronic conditions that lead to higher medical costs and increased absence from work," said Stephanie Pronk, clinical health improvement leader for Health & Benefits at Aon Hewitt. "An effective incentive strategy rewarding those who take action to improve their health is fundamental for improving health and reducing cost."

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.