Top Athletes Are Top Priority for Wellness Incentives at Some Organizations

By Todd Henneman

Aug. 6, 2013

Government leaders of Eagle County, Colorado, introduced an employee-wellness program in 2007 with a clear goal: Drive down what they considered “unsustainable health care costs.” But their program initially overlooked what some health-promotion practitioners describe as a small but pivotal group: the healthiest workers.

At the onset, Eagle County, which includes the posh ski town of Vail, focused on getting employees to complete health-risk assessments and participate in occasional workplace walks. Over the years, the health-promotion initiative grew into an extensive program with competitions, outcome-based incentives and health screenings.

But one group caught the attention of Lisa Ponder after she became Eagle County’s director of human resources in 2009. She noticed that 25 percent of her workforce was “über athletes” with perfect health scores. She wanted to engage these fitness superstars to champion wellness and motivate colleagues.

“We went to that group and asked, ‘What do you want?’ ” Ponder says. “It was different incentives than people who are trying to lose 20 pounds, and it was different ways to keep them involved.”

Wellness programs continue gaining popularity as employers look for ways to curb rising health care costs. In 2012, health insurance cost employers an average of 7.8 percent of total compensation compared with an average of 6.3 percent in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seven in 10 U.S. employers offer wellness initiatives, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. And employers spend an average of $521 per employee on wellness-based incentives, which is double the average reported in 2009, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.

Wellness programs often target employees with chronic conditions such as diabetes in hopes of minimizing hospital visits, or they focus on employees interested in shedding extra pounds or eating more vegetables. However, there’s one group who’s all but forgotten: the healthiest workers, says Andrew Greenberg, senior vice president of sales and marketing at GlobalFit, a Philadelphia-based provider of physical activity programs. The company’s clients include Eagle County, Allstate Insurance Co. and Domino’s Pizza Inc.

“The group all the way at the top has, to some extent, been ignored,” Greenberg says.

That’s a mistake, he says. Without reinforcing their healthy employees’ smart choices, employers risk having those workers slowly slide into bad habits over time and erode any savings.

Greenberg says companies need to look no further than research by Dee Edington, a professor at the University of Michigan, to see the importance of engaging the healthiest in wellness efforts.

Edington studied decades of data and determined that employers reap the biggest savings by keeping healthy people healthy. In his book “Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy,” Edington advocates giving cash and noncash rewards to workers who maintain their good health.

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm for rewarding fitness fans for doing what they already do.

“Generally, if I were advising somebody, I’d say unless you have unlimited resources, spending money on people who are already doing what you need them to do is probably not wise,” says John Hennessy, national leader for the health and welfare practice of Hay Group.

He says the best investments motivate employees to get health screenings or preventive checkups.

In Eagle County, Ponder listened to her “über athletes” and gave them what they wanted: lower premiums. They pay $20 less per month. If a spouse also meets the criteria, the couple saves a total of $40 a month. The county also pays their registration fee to 5K races and other competitions.

In turn, they participate on workplace teams that earn rewards such as time off for reaching monthly walking goals. And the wellness program is meeting its goal. Ninety-four percent of the workforce participates. From 2009 to 2012, Eagle County has saved $1 millionwith Ponder attributing half of the savings to the wellness program.

Todd Hennemanis a writer based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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