The Biggest Loser Coming to your Office?

Last Updated Sep 18, 2010 11:20 PM EDT

With health care costs expected to rise nearly 9 percent in 2011, it's not exactly surprising that companies are ramping up their focus on how to encourage their workforce to get more healthy. Not only will a healthier you likely file fewer health insurance claims, but hey, you're also likely to need fewer sick days, a not inconsequential productivity lever.

While wellness programs aren't anything new, there is an interesting evolution afoot in the tenor of the programs. For years the focus has been on positive reinforcement; offering carrots for employees to get screened for core health issues such as cholesterol, blood pressure, weight/body fat etc, or offering incentives for putting down the cigarettes.

But now we're heading into the age of the stick as well. A recent Hewitt Associates survey found that nearly half of employers plan to impose penalties or disincentives on employees who don't participate in certain wellness programs.

Smokers currently get the brunt of the stick action:

Source: Hewitt Associates

At Navistar, for example, non-union smokers are hit with a $50 a month penalty.

Wellness programs are also shifting from merely encouraging employees to show up for a screening, or enroll in a program, to pushing for tangible results. In its own survey, benefits consulting firm Towers Watson reports that by 2012, 62 percent of corporations say they will be shelling out incentives for employees who record measured improvement in specific wellness areas. Many employers already are linking incentives to results. For example, Colorado's Douglas County School District is walking the walk on health incentives. It outfitted employees with pedometers that are digitally read by recorders around the schools; employees who string together 200 days of 10,000 steps per day earn a $500 payout. (That works out to about 5 miles a day depending on your stride.) Current law restricts incentives to no more than 20 percent of an employee's premium. A provision in the health reform legislation will raise that limit to 30 percent in 2014. Given the sorry state of pay raises, participating in your firm's wellness program-and logging results-could become a valuable benefit.

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