Why Some Workplace Health Incentive Programs Work, and Some Don’t

Plenty of companies these days offer their employees monetary incentives to exercise, lose weight or quit smoking. Join the program, take a physical, track your steps, your pounds, or your other vital stats, and usually, your employer will trim a healthy chunk out of your annual premiums — which, considering how much most workers are contributing to their health insurance coverage, ought to be a strong motivator.

So why aren’t more of us getting healthier?

Mitesh Patel, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and a professor of health care management at Wharton, has been researching some fundamental questions about these programs. He joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about when they work, when they don’t, and what incentives and structures are most likely to get us to adopt healthier habits.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start specifically with the studies you did about weight loss and companies’ exercise incentive plans. Can you go into the background about how this all came about?

Mitesh Patel: Many people are interested in using financial incentives to help motivate employees to lose weight. About 80% of large employers in the United States use some form of financial incentive for health promotion, but there hasn’t been a lot of evidence about how to use these incentives, how they can best be designed, or whether or not they actually work. We conducted a yearlong clinical trial to test whether or not financial incentives delivered through premium adjustments — which is the standard way employers do this — work. They either lower your health insurance premium payments if you meet certain goals or they raise them if you don’t. It’s a common mechanism that companies use, and there are a variety of reasons why we think it may not be the best way. So we conducted a yearlong clinical trial to test whether or not they could be used effectively to help people lose weight.

For the rest of the interview, to listen top the podcast, and/or read full transcript of the interview with Prof. Patel, go here.

This article was originally published on Knowledge@Wharton on April 4, 2016.