Workers in growing number of companies stand to win by losing
Fenton-based Maritz built its reputation by showing other corporations how to set goals and motivate people to meet them. Now the company is encouraging its workers to set a few personal goals. They are being offered the chance to earn cash for losing weight and remaining healthy.
The initiative is part of a new trend among many insurers and employers to hand out money, gift cards and other prizes to entice workers to stay fit to help companies rein in health insurance costs. But a new wrinkle has employees paying to compete.
Workers at Maritz, Brown Shoe and several other area firms have signed up for a program called HealthyWage. Enrollees from each company are split into five member teams, with each enrollee paying a $60 fee. Each team has a goal of losing the most weight during the next 12 weeks and win part of an $18,000 cash prize. The area team losing the most gets to split $10,000, followed by a second prize of $5,000, and a third prize of $3,000.
One Maritz team includes Sherry L. Ward, vice president of human resource systems and services. She says the company already offers plenty of wellness incentives, but, she adds, a company can never put too much emphasis on developing a healthy workforce. She was asked about studies showing that people who lose weight tend to regain it.
"That's why Maritz does a lot of other incentives to change behaviors," she says. "The long-term goal is to get people to change physical fitness behavior so that they can keep the weight off."
The teams make their own decisions about how they will achieve their weight-loss goals, which might "involve anything from nutritional changes to exercising multiple times a week," Ward says.
David Roddenberry, a co-founder of HealthyWage, says enrollees are charged $60 to help offset the company's overhead. He says studies convinced him that people are more likely to get serious about losing weight if their own money is at stake. In addition, he says HealthyWage has found that offering small cash rewards tends to "triple the impact of weight-loss programs." In addition to participants' fees, the company also gets donations from health-care groups and other companies to cover overhead. He says well over 500 area workers had signed up for the local HealthyWage competition.
Roddenberry, who previously worked in finance at a hedge fund, says he decided in 2009 to take what he learned from earning a master's degree in public health policy and apply it to the challenge of encouraging people to lose weight. He says new approaches are needed because obesity adds to overall health care spending and "to break the cost curve, we have to figure out a way to reverse obesity."
Roddenberry concedes that people can be encouraged to lose pounds in any number of ways, but he believes financial incentives are among the most successful approaches.
LARGE EMPLOYERS INVEST IN EMPLOYEES' HEALTH
HealthyWage is one of the latest approaches to helping workers get fit or stay fit. American Express, for example, helps offset health-care costs for workers who agree to walk a certain number of miles each day. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City has developed "A Healthier You" program. It encourages about 180 employers to emphasize wellness programs among tens of thousands of workers, says Dr. Gregg Laiben, the insurer's medical director.
Blue Cross' approach includes surveys of an estimated 60,000 workers to determine which ones were under stress and which ones were likely to have good nutrition, "exercise, walk, eat their vegetables â all those things that are the right things to do," he says.
In addition, the insurer has programs to send nurses to work sites to find out about employee health issues, such as blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and body fat measurements.
"These help individuals determine if they need to get in to see a doctor," Laiben says.
The insurer also encourages companies to build financial incentives into their programs to promote good health. Without these incentives, companies can count on only about 30 percent of workers taking up suggestions that they exercise or do other things to improve fitness.
"When we see employers either give employees (discounts) on premiums or cash rewards, such as a $25 gift card, we see those numbers climb up 60 percent to 90 percent," he says.
Although some employers don't want to spend as much, he says that when companies invest "more than a couple of a hundred dollars a year (in fitness programs for each worker), they get much more uptick than they do for less (reward) than that."
Laiben says the investment pays off "because we know healthier people cost less, and employers obviously know this. If you feel OK, if you're healthy, you work well, you have a better attitude, more energy and less stress. It's positive for the individuals themselves, the employer and the insurance company. It's good for everybody involved."
He adds that that medical costs could be slowed by more than 3 percent "if we can get folk engaged and involved in caring about their health, taking the survey" and get the appropriate medical tests.
"If we can prevent one case of diabetes, we would save that employer a whole lot of money, and save that individual a whole lot of headache and grief."
Contact Beacon staff writer Robert Joiner. Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.