Your Boss Could Pay You to Stay Healthy

Employers are trying new ways to keep their employees healthy and productive -- and keep their health care costs down in the process.
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Don't be surprised if you get an email informing you that you've been designated someone's "stress management support person."

Open enrollment season for health benefits begins this month, and employers are trying new ways to keep their employees healthy and productive -- and keep their health care costs down in the process.

To do this, many are providing incentives -- financial and otherwise -- for employees to fill out questionnaires that help identify health risks and encourage healthier behavior. For example, someone who indicates he or she is stressed out would be encouraged to participate in a Web-based stress management program. Someone who is a smoker or overweight would be pointed toward a smoking-cessation or weight-loss program.

"The whole area is a growth industry," says Ted Dacko, the president and chief executive officer of HealthMedia, Inc., a behavior change company based in Ann Arbor, Mich. His company provides employers with risk-assessment tools and behavior-change programs that focus on stress management, depression and sleep disorders. "From the employer perspective, what they're looking to identify and quantify is productivity impairment."

HealthMedia's revenue jumped 60% in the past year, Dacko says.

My family recently had its own encounter with HealthMedia when my husband filled out a health questionnaire through his employer -- the incentive was an extra paid day off from work -- and was guided to some stress-management techniques.

Among them was designating a "support person" to help him manage his stress. That's how I came to get an email suggesting specific ways I could support him, such as trying not to be judgmental, helping him with tasks and offering moral support when needed. (It's hard to say whether my extra efforts to reduce my husband's stress have helped, or whether the extra day of vacation did the trick instead.)

HealthMedia and other companies that provide similar products and services argue that their programs not only help people become healthier, but also enhance their performance at work, improve their family life, and ultimately save companies money by lowering health care premiums.

There's evidence that providing employees with incentives to take better care of themselves can pay dividends. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a private health care foundation in Plainsboro, N.J., has an on-site fitness facility that is open and free to employees and their families, a dining room that provides free, nutritious meals and a walking and bike path around the grounds of the building. Exercise and yoga classes are available, and nutritional analysis is provided for the food offered in the cafeteria.

New employees receive a pedometer and are encouraged to enter a competition in which they can team up to do an imaginary walk across America with other employees. "We've tried to take away all of the obstacles that normally get in people's way when they're trying to address (their health)," says David Waldman, the foundation's vice president of human resources and administration. While there is some degree of altruism behind these programs, the bottom line is that they're also cost-efficient, Waldman says.

"We cover the lives of our staff's dependents in our health plans," he says. "The domino effect here is amazing." Waldman says the foundation has seen smaller premium increases and actually had its premium reduced during one recent quarter. "You'd be crazy not to pay attention to the anecdotal information," he says.

Beginning in February, the foundation will offer its employees a financial incentive for filling out a health assessment questionnaire. There will be additional incentives throughout the year as employees follow through with their individualized wellness programs.

Across the country, at the University of California, employees will become eligible in 2008 for a $75 gift certificate for filling out a health-risk assessment as part of a new wellness benefit the university is starting next year. An employee who spends the money at a university recreational facility will get an additional $75 discount. Also included in the program are personalized health improvement programs, which include a wellness coach and access to other health resources.

"We hope to see 40% to 60% of eligible employees, retirees and their eligible dependents participate in 2008," says Cindy Peete, the university's human resources and benefits policy and program design coordinator. "We have had very positive feedback from many employees about adding this health benefit."

Benefits experts say these trends are only going to take firmer hold as health care costs continue to rise and employers shift more of the burden onto their employees. Some 46% of employers currently offer economic incentives for healthy behavior or penalties for unhealthy ones, and 26% more plan to do so in 2008, according to a forthcoming survey by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a consulting firm, and the National Business Group on Health.

"Improved health of your workers means your employees are at work more often and are more productive," says Shelly Wolff, the national leader for health and productivity at Watson Wyatt. "If you're healthier, you can enjoy recreation and your home life more effectively, so there's something in it for everybody."

Employers are also using more "health coaches," or people who can help employees navigate the health care delivery system and advise on benefit decisions, chronic disease management, nutrition and other health challenges, Wolff says.

HealthMedia's Dacko says his company provides an artificial intelligence model of health coaching; essentially coaching without the coach. Individuals are guided through a series of questions based on their responses to their health-risk assessment, and a program is automatically generated to meet their individual needs. "Our business is akin to what the automated teller is to the banking industry," he says. "The banking industry, the book industry, even

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has learned it. The health care industry is lagging behind."