While landing a nice fat raise has been a challenge the past year for all of us who aren't Wall Street CEO's, more employers are opening up their wallets and offering rank-and-file employees surprisingly large payouts to get healthy. According to a new report, a married couple could have snagged an average $850 in financial incentives in 2010 for enrolling in a variety of health improvement program offered at work. That's a 65 percent increase over the financial incentives employers offered to get healthy just a year earlier.
After making sure you grab the company match on your 401(k), taking advantage of wellness financial incentives is emerging as one of the more valuable non-salary benefits.
Of course, companies aren't doing this out of the goodness of their heart. There's plenty of financial incentive in it for them to bribe us into getting healthier. So what? This is one of those rare win-wins for employer and employee:
- Bribes are great motivation. In 2010, nearly two-thirds of companies surveyed offered financial wellness incentives. The average per-person benefit rose to $430 per employee (and $420 for spouses in plans that extended the benefit to the better half). That's up from the average $260-per-person benefit doled out in 2009. The financial bribes include cold hard cash, gift cards, and boosting the employer contribution to health savings accounts. Quite a step-up from the days of snagging a water bottle at the health fair, eh?
Sunit Patel, senior vice president of Fidelity Benefits Consulting, which conducted the study with the National Business Group on Health, noted that "wellness programs in the past have typically had modest impact because of low participation rates, but our study indicated that incentives are starting to make a real difference in employee interest and engagement." It took them this long to catch on?
If you've sort of glazed over those "get healthy" emails in the past and skipped the health fair, you might want to check back in with H.R. and see what's being offered these days. If a bit of a financial incentive is what it takes to get you to sign up for a class on stopping to smoke, or better manage your blood pressure, or lose the 20 pounds you've been meaning to lose for the last few years, well, here's your chance.
- Wellness programs can reduce your company health insurance costs, which also benefits you. A separate study from benefits consulting firm Mercer Consulting found that the annual increase in health insurance costs among firms that offer wellness programs was about two percentage points lower than firms that didn't offer the incentives. Even if you're lucky enough to work for a company that doesn't require you to pay some of your premium, you still win here. Every dollar your company can save in its medical benefit costs is a potential dollar that might be thrown into the raise pool, or allow your company to sink more into expansion or R&D, which may open up opportunities for you.
- Your annual out-of-pocket health care costs will likely drop. A healthier you will probably need less medical care. That means fewer co-pays for doctor's visits, tests, and meds. Sure, a healthier you shows up at work more and just might be more productive, which is why your boss wants you to get healthier, but that benefit pales in comparison to what it can personally deliver to you in terms of quality of life, and even perhaps helping you land a raise. The fact that you can now get paid a little something to take steps that could lower your health care costs seems like nice icing on the cake to me.
- There's a potentially huge retirement payoff. Medicare doesn't cover all our retirement health care expenses. MoneyWatch's Charlie Farrell estimates out-of-pocket health care costs in retirement could reach $1 million for many of us. Yikes. And that's just based on current Medicare policy; if Medicare benefits are eventually scaled back to help address the federal deficit, we're all going to have to contribute even more to our retirement medical costs. Taking advantage of a company-sponsored wellness program today can have a direct impact on those costs. As retirement expert Olivia Mitchell points out, focusing on your health today can end up costing you a lot less in retirement.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Leslie
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