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Yoga On Commission: More Employers Pay For Good Health Habits

Health risk questionnaires and other wellness programs are becoming a popular way for employers to encourage employee health and, ultimately, reduce health care costs.
Health risk questionnaires and other wellness programs are becoming a popular way for employers to encourage employee health and, ultimately, reduce health care costs.

If you feel like your employer is more interested in your health lately, you're probably right.

The Affordable Care Act encourages more employers to offer health insurance plans to their employees. But poor health habits and preventable illnesses are adding to the expense of these plans for employers. A recent survey suggests that, increasingly, employers are seeking to cut healthcare costs from the bottom up — by directly addressing the health habits of their employees.

"[Improving employee health] is the only meaningful way to reduce healthcare costs ... and the first step in the process is to motivate employees and their families to participate in health and wellness programs," says Jim Winkler, chief innovation officer of health and benefits at Aon Hewitt, the consultancy that did the survey.

Aon Hewitt asked 1,800 employers in the United States about the health programs they currently offer, and those that they plan to offer in the future. They found that health risk questionnaires, which are surveys meant to raise awareness of health issues among employees, were the most common health program, offered by 68 percent of employers in 2012.

Quite unsurprisingly, cash and reduced premiums seem to be the best motivators for health program participation. Companies that offer financial incentives for employees to take part in the questionnaires see an average of 84 percent participation, the study reports.

However, filling out a questionnaire doesn't necessarily translate to improved health habits, and many employers want to go a step further, Winkler says. "Employers are beginning to move beyond incentives associated with a specific action to 'I really want to award you for taking initial action in improving your health and achieving results,'" he says.

Charting weight loss and assigning health coaches seem a bit intrusive, but Winkler says that it pays for employers to be involved. "Employers are really beginning to focus on the fact that employee health or the lack of employee health is really a big issue for the success of the business," he says. "[They're] spending a lot of money on health care and health-related absenteeism. We need to change that dynamic."

The study reports that employers are also offering more diverse health-related initiatives in 2012; sponsored fitness challenges, stress reduction techniques, and smoking cessation programs are all growing trends for employers.

Some companies may even deny insurance discounts to employees who make bad health choices, but Winkler says that incentives are meant to be available for any employee, regardless of health status. "It's about rewarding people who take their own health seriously; it's not about punishing people who are sick," he says.

And until healthcare costs subside, employers will keep trying to boost their bottom line through improving employee health habits. "Employers are rapidly looking at an array of tactics ... [finding] what's the right mix of carrots and sticks to get the right behavior they need," Winkler says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 13, 2012 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Jim Winkler as Aon Hewitt's chief information officer of health and benefits. Winkler is the chief innovation officer of health and benefits.
Jessica Stoller-Conrad
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