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Carrot or cash?

Nature sounds fill your office hallways. A massage therapist comes in once a week. New equipment shines in the workout room. There are even little green stickers marking the healthier options in the vending machine. You’re doing everything people associate with workplace wellness. So why don’t your employees seem any healthier or more relaxed?

First, take a deep breath. You’re not alone. Workplace wellness is a culture far more
than it is a specific program or set of benefits.  It takes time to get employees to understand that you are serious about wellness, are willing to invest in their well-being, and are committed to changing the office environment.

Second, like it or not, workplace wellness programs are not one-size-fits-all.  You have to be prepared to tinker with your programming and endure a few missteps before finding what works best for your particular set of employees.

Third, you sometimes have to accept that cash is still king.

The National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments’ Sixth Annual Employer-Sponsored Health & Well-being Survey found employers spent nearly $700 on wellness program incentives per  employee in 2015 to boost program attendance (source: Forbes).

Companies with effective wellness programs see the benefits

  • $1,600 lower medical costs per employee
  •    34higher revenue per employee
  •   26fewer cases of hypertension
  •    25%  lower obesity rates (those with a BMI > 30)

Source: Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health, Staying @ Work survey, 2013-2014

Popular incentives include gift cards, free screenings and exercise classes. Some offices even go so far as to hand out trinkets and t-shirts, raffle off flashy prizes, and give away event tickets to program participants.

That all adds up, so it better work, right? Like it or not, the data says it does.

According to the Wellness Councils of America, depending on the incentive you offer, these efforts can increase participation 40 to 45 percent. Specifically, incentives of $25 to $75 produced a participation increase of between 30 and 50 percent; while those with $100 to $500 incentives produced a 70 to 80 percent increase in participation. (Be aware there are federal and state regulations about financial incentive limits for wellness programs – consult your tax professional).

Budgets will vary, but assuming you’re investing time and money into a wellness program, it only makes sense to make sure your efforts are aligned with creating sustainable success.  The way to do that is to start out by identifying what your employees care most about and what they value. Then, link the incentive to your wellness program’s message and your employee’s interests. For example, getting key biometric preventive screenings or vaccines can earn employees extra health care dollars. This helps employees by reducing their potential out-of-pocket health care costs and gets the employer a healthier, more engaged workforce.

How much of a financial incentive you provide depends on your budget and the value of the program, class or event you’re asking employees to join.  Generally speaking, it’s best to start small and build engagement over time.  Getting people take part in a once-a-year wellness screening is likely a much easier hurdle to clear than convincing everyone to attend 7 a.m. yoga sessions in the conference room.

If you need additional ideas for how to align your wellness program with your workforce’s needs and interests, talk to your insurance broker or health insurer. Rewarding employees who take part in healthy program and activities can cost you a bit upfront, but the long term benefits can be worth it.

Still not convinced?  I leave you with this:

An analysis performed by Health Enhancement Research Organization found that publicly traded companies with high-performing wellness programs outgrew their peers in Standard & Poor’s 500 index by nearly 48 percent over a six-year period (Source:

That’s quite the leg up over the competition… Better start doing those deep knee bends.

Nobile is a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry whose experience includes time with Rush Prudential Health Plans, Aetna, and United Healthcare. Prior to joining Anthem, Nobile served as the Director of Sales and Account Management for the Midwest region at UniCare, a health benefits company based in Chicago and owned by Anthem’s parent company and also ran UniCare’s Eastern Region with offices.