Why wellness programs should use positive incentives instead of negative consequences


I did a lot of shaking my head as I wrote about Honeywell's wellness program last week. The New Jersey-based company plans to penalize employees who don't participate in health screenings.

And a federal judge just sanctioned those penalties, which include fining employees $500 for not undergoing biometric screenings and withholding $1,500 annually in company contributions to employees' health savings accounts for not undergoing wellness screenings like blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol tests.

Honeywell isn't the only employer looking to use a stick instead of a carrot to get workers to join wellness programs. Maryland requires wellness programs as part of the state's health insurance coverage and will penalize employees as much as $450 per person by 2017. And CVS Health will require employees who don't complete annual health risk assessments to pay $600 more per year for their insurance premiums.

I'm not going to argue the legality of the penalties, but I do question Honeywell's reasons for punishing its employees. I, for one, am much more motivated by positive incentives than negative consequences. Promise me something I actually want (like cash or a cool gift) and I'll sign up; threaten to take money away and I'm suspicious and resentful. The latter emotions don't make for a very committed participant.

And I'm not the only one who feels this way. A poll released this summer found that 74 percent of the public thinks it's inappropriate for employers to force workers to pay higher premiums if they don't meet certain health goals or participate in a wellness program.

Indeed, wellness programs are most effective when they feature carefully selected incentives that compel employees to participate and take certain actions or perform certain activities throughout the program.

For example, my husband's company offers financial benefits for participating in its wellness program. The standard deductible is $1,000 per person and $2,000 per family, with the company contributing $500 per person and $1,000 per family.

But if the employee undergoes optional health screenings, including an overall physical, blood tests, blood pressure screenings and tobacco checks, then my husband's company provides an additional $500 per person and $1,000 per family toward the deductible.

My husband opted to participate in the program to reap the rewards--and he did so happily because he felt highly compensated. That produces a far more motivated wellness participant and overall employee, in my opinion.

If more companies implement incentives similar to the one my husband's uses, perhaps participation numbers would increase for wellness programs. And then maybe more healthcare goals would be achieved, including losing weight and decreasing risk factors for chronic illness, which would then save both employers and insurers money in the long-term. - Dina (@HealthPayer)

Related Articles:
How to create compelling incentives for wellness programs
Poll: Don't link wellness programs to premiums
Employers, states raising the stakes for wellness program participation
Judge: Wellness programs can penalize non-participants