Why your boss will pay you to lose weight

By Megg Mueller on August 16th, 2011

Feet on scaleWhere's the first place you think of going when you need to get healthy? Work, right? The doctor might be a good choice, too, but more and more employers are helping their workers address their health care needs through employee wellness programs. From smoking cessation to weight management, diabetes prevention to stress-management techniques, it's becoming evident that helping create healthy employees is good for the bottom line.

"Employees who get healthier get more engaged and increase productivity," Adam H. Klayman said. Klayman is Client Advocate, Human Capital Practice, at the Willis Group, a firm that helps companies reduce benefit costs with wellness plans. "A more engaged employee is one who's doing better at his job; there's less absenteeism which costs the company money. When you're at your job and not working at full capacity, that costs money as well."

Employ some better habits

More and more companies are offering their employees some sort of wellness benefit. Towers Watson, an international company that specializes in employee benefits and risk management, released a recent study of 558 companies encompassing 9.2 million full-time employees which discovered 23 percent offered such a benefit and another 12 percent plan to in the next year. Of those that did have a wellness plan, 11 percent had increased their offerings, and about 58 percent offered employee's incentives to participate.

Participation is key, according to Nicoletta Morin, Product Director for Wellness and Health Coaching programs for Cigna Health Insurance. Proactive screenings are just one of the products Cigna offers its customers, but it's a crucial piece of wellness care.

"About 30 percent of the working population has metabolic syndrome," Morin explains. "Some are aware, and maybe on meds. Others are not even aware, or maybe they have one or two risk factors. After the screening up to 50 percent of people discover they have the symptoms."

Metabolic syndrome relates to a cluster of effects that if you test high on three of the cluster, such as excess abdominal fat or elevated triglyceride levels, your likelihood of diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers goes up significantly. Cigna reports one in three employees is affected by metabolic syndrome, and these workers can spend four times as much as their peers on medication, plus miss twice as many days of work.

Getting paid to get in better shape

Despite the obvious benefits of better health many people still don't take care of themselves, so employers have started rewarding employees who participate in their wellness initiatives. Klayman says employers are offering everything from gift cards to reduced deductibles to cash in order to encourage workers to do such things as quit smoking, lose weight or have regular blood work done. His company, in fact, is an example of what larger companies might do; Klayman receives $750 off his deductible if he completes a wellness questionnaire and gets his blood work done.

Other programs work like airline reward programs, allowing employees to earn points for various healthy endeavors. Those points can then be redeemed for such things as hotel stays, shopping gift cards and more.

Spend a little, get a lot

While not all companies can offer large incentives, Cigna's Morin advises companies of all size to get involved in their employee's health.

"Whatever you can do, start doing something. Insurance companies like Cigna provide health promotion managers to work with the clients to help identify the right programs for them," she says.

In an article with the Wellness Council of America, Cornell University's Institute for Health and Productivity Studies Director Ron Goetzel, PhD, said employers who spend $100-$150 per employee per year on wellness programs can expect to see about a $300-$450 return on investment (ROI) after three years. Savings are realized through decreased use of benefits and reduced premiums, but there's a less tangible benefit as well; productivity. Klayman estimates Willis' programs can reduce medical trend by 2 percent by year two. Think that's not enough to make the upfront costs worth it?

"If you have a million dollar premium, that's $ 20,000," he says. "Typically our top-of-line wellness program cost is about $1.40 per employee per month; if you have 100 employees that's just $140 a month."

As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't always make him drink. While avoiding a trip to the doctor and the ensuing medical bills should be enough to encourage living a healthy lifestyle, that isn't always the case. And that's where wellness programs come in; they make that water just a little sweeter and enticing.

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