US companies pay employees incentives for losing weight



The anti-obesity campaign in the US is gaining momentum. One reason is the strong involvement of First Lady Michelle Obama. Another is the fact that many employers  have realized that a fit workforce saves a lot of money in the long run. That is why many companies have invested in wellness in the workplace programs.

According to a report in Health Affairs by Harvard researchers:

“Amid soaring health spending, there is growing interest in workplace disease prevention and wellness programs to improve health and lower costs. In a critical meta-analysis of the literature on costs and savings associated with such programs, we found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent. Although further exploration of the mechanisms at work and broader applicability of the findings is needed, this return on investment suggests that the wider adoption of such programs could prove beneficial for budgets and productivity as well as health outcomes.”

The most recent trend is companies offering their employees incentives to lose weight. Incentives can be in terms of real cash, extra days off, paid vacations, and lower insurance premiums. A recent report estimates that at least a third of US companies have some form of incentive program.

According to Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives:

“There’s been an explosion of interest in this.”

Here are some examples of successful programs:

  • The hospital chain OhioHealth pays their employees for walking. Fitted with a pedometer, employees can earn up to $500 a year for moving around.
  • IBM has reported a model wellness program wherein half of the staff participate in a 12-month web-based fitness program and earn some extra bucks, too.

The programs vary a lot depending on the company

Although there are a few success stories, many experts are skeptical whether the “dieting for dollars” programs are really making much of a difference. Currently, there is very little scientific data to support that these programs really work. Many studies have been conducted with inconclusive results. One of the biggest studies so far was done by researchers at Cornell University. Their results are rather disappointing. Of the 7 wellness programs evaluated, the average weight loss was about a pound or more.

Many people believe that the “dieting for dollars” program alone cannot stop obesity. Other factors should be taken into consideration as well. One IBM employee cites the workplace culture.  In New York, the culture is to ask “What restaurant can we go to, or what bar can we go to?” In California, the questions are  “What activity can you do, and what can you go see, and how can we figure out a way to not take a car there?”

It is quite clear in which culture is losing weight easiest.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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