Wellness Programs Get Creative

By KRISTEN GERENCHER Employers are trying a new tactic to prod their workers to live healthier lives and reduce medical costs: more creative and often lucrative incentives. Despite the effects of the recession, many employers are spending more money on wellness programs that aim to help people eat right, get regular exercise, manage stress and quit smoking. And they’re experimenting with new ways to motivate employees to switch or stick to healthful habits, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health, a Washington-based group of large employers. “Everyone knows what to do,” she says. “It’s not a lack of knowledge that’s the problem.” Among the incentives: extra time off, prize drawings, workplace competitions, discounts on insurance premiums or gym memberships and even cash. Employers spent an average $220 per worker on wellness incentive awards last year, up 35% from $163 in 2009, according to a survey of more than 1,200 employers from Buck Consultants, a benefits-consulting group based in New York. About 11% spent more than $500 per employee last year. Nearly three out of four North American employers have some sort of wellness program, according to the survey. Many programs include a confidential health screening, where workers can fill out a health-assessment questionnaire or undergo routine tests to alert them to their blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But some programs are branching out in unconventional directions. Webcor Builders, a general contractor in San Mateo, Calif., recently revamped its wellness program for its 325 salaried workers, says Geraldine Slattery, the company’s benefits specialist. “The reason a lot of wellness programs go stale is there are not a lot of incentives for employees to continue. They do their health assessment; it’s done,” Ms. Slattery says. “We wanted something different.” So last March, Webcor signed up with Limeade, a wellness company based in Bellevue, Wash., and started soliciting “challenges” from employees — ideas for challenging co-workers to meet certain health and fitness-related goals. Ms. Slattery says starting this year a new committee will vet ideas that come in. Challenges target a scope of different activities. For example, workers can earn points for getting their routine preventive care done in a timely way, for eating five fruits and vegetables a day, or for climbing the most flights of stairs over a set time period. Extra days off and prize drawings are the reward. Last year, employees who earned the maximum number of points were rewarded with one paid day off. This year, the company is doubling its offer. Workers who earn a total of 4,000 points get two paid days off. Steady participants also are entered in quarterly drawings for an extra day off and gadgets like the Kindle, Wii and iPad. One employee, 56-year-old Karen Thayer, got hooked on the stair challenge. The result: She lost 50 pounds and was able to stop using one of her blood-pressure medications. She also got an extra day off and won an iPod touch at a quarterly raffle. Participants can track their points by logging on to the Limeade system from work or home, Ms. Slattery says. The program is flexible enough to adapt to the needs of a diverse employee population, some of whom bike to work and others of whom are more sedentary, Ms. Slattery says. “You need to provide a little bit of everything.” A focus on wellness has helped Florida’s Sarasota County government notch a 3% drop in the cost of health-care premiums this year, says Angela Gustafson, a registered nurse and the county’s wellness-development adviser. Sarasota County, which employs 3,200 people, offers 33 onsite group exercise classes, over staggered lunch hours and before and after work, Ms. Gustafson says. Nearly a third of the classes, including spinning, yoga and Zumba, are taught by qualified worker volunteers. Workers also can take advantage of four free sessions a year with a personal trainer. That benefit has boosted utilization of the county’s five fitness centers, Ms. Gustafson says, but gym-averse employees can tap trainers to start a fitness regimen as simple as walking. Those who complete their four free sessions also get $25. Workers can earn up to a total of $100 a year by participating in various wellness activities. Helping workers to better cope with stress is a priority as well. The county has seen lower medical and prescription-drug spending among 911 operators since launching a stress-management program called Heart Math in 2009, she says. And after seeing good results from a program in which employees with medical conditions worked with a dietician, the county is changing its health coverage to allow workers to see the dietician for free even if they don’t have a specific diagnosis, Ms. Gustafson says.