Should organisations incentivise health improvement among employees?

incentivise health

Need to know:

  • Growing numbers of employees expect a reward or incentive for participating in workplace health programmes.
  • Many off-the-shelf initiatives enable employees to collect points for completing healthy actions; these can then be redeemed for various rewards and prizes.
  • Employers should carefully consider the type of challenge and reward being used to ensure that they engage the widest range of employees.

There is ample proof that incentives can help to promote healthy behaviours. For example, health insurer Vitality introduced a benefit at the end of 2016 which enabled its members to receive discounts of up to 25% on a range of healthy food items at Ocado. In the six months after this was launched, Vitality saw a 19% increase in the healthy components featured in its members’ Ocado shopping.

Similarly, in Scotland, a National Health Service (NHS) scheme that ran between December 2011 and February 2013 gave pregnant smokers up to £400 in vouchers if they successfully stopped smoking. This resulted in 22.5% of mothers-to-be quitting, compared to just 8.6% of the control group.

According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2017-2018 Global benefits attitudes survey, published in November 2017, a growing percentage of employees expect a reward.

Mike Blake, director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, says: “Globally, 34% of employees would only participate in [workplace] health initiatives if there was a financial incentive, up from 26% four years ago. Incentives are common in the US, where employees can earn up to $1,000 [£760.40] a year by participating in workplace wellness programmes, but interest is growing in other markets too.”

Building an incentive programme

There is nothing to stop an employer offering its own incentives, such as discount vouchers or free health trackers, to encourage participation in a health programme, but there are also plenty of ready-made schemes.

Vitality’s wellness programme was one of the first to launch in the UK in October 2004, and is offered alongside its medical insurance and protection products. Members earn Vitality points if they engage in healthy activities, with rewards ranging from a free Starbucks to discounted Apple watches and half-price gym memberships. Nick Read, commercial director at Vitality, explains: “By getting just 12 points in a week, which is equivalent to notching up 10,000 steps in three days, [employees] earn enough to get free cinema tickets and a free coffee. Over four years, the number of people reaching this target has increased eleven-fold.”

Another provider that puts incentives at the heart of its health programme is Earthmiles. Its Earthmiles@Work app gives employees points for activities such as walking, cycling and taking part in health education quizzes and programmes. These points can then be redeemed for health-related rewards, such as free yoga classes.

Tobin Murphy-Cole, co-founder and chief commercial officer at Earthmiles, says: “[Around] 72% of users are motivated by the fact they’re rewarded. On top of this, 60% of users engage with the app at least 10 times a month; this is much higher than on other preventative services. An employee assistance programme only has utilisation around the 2% mark.”

Making incentives work

Whether an organisation sets up its own scheme to incentivise health, or uses one provided by a third party, there are ways to increase its effectiveness, according to David Prosser, head of proposition development at The Health Insurance Group. Employers, he says, need to find ways to reach the 10-15% who are harbouring poor health risks, rather than focus on those who are already leading healthy lives.

Variety is essential. Employers should, for example, make rewards available for reading health information and taking tests, as well as for leading an active life. “Where an employee has poor health, small changes can make a big difference,” Prosser explains. “Reward them for these first steps and it will encourage them to carry on.”

The way incentives are delivered can also affect participation. For example, an individual challenge with prizes for those at the top of the league table might suit employees who are already active, but is likely to alienate those who do not regularly participate in exercise. Replacing this with a team-based challenge may help to engage a wider range of employees.

Careful consideration should also be given to the type of reward on offer. Although employers might be concerned that offering bottles of wine or indulgent meals could undermine the goal of the programme, if the aim is to attract as many employees as possible, this kind of range is important. “A mix of rewards and health-related incentives will reach more people,” he explains. “People will make changes if the reward is something they want.”