Employees Prefer Competition With Weight-Loss Cash Rewards

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A Michigan study found that cash rewards can be great incentives for improved employee health habits. However, researchers add that the recipe for success includes one important ingredient: competition from workers' peers.

According to the University of Michigan Health System, the list of employers offering cash incentives for workers to stay healthy is expanding. HealthCare.gov says that the Affordable Care Act allows companies to continue supporting wellness programs. However, employers will be able to offer bigger financial incentives to promote healthier lifestyle choices by workers. Losing weight and tossing tobacco are just two examples.

Researchers from the Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System and the University of Michigan Health System teamed to conduct the study with funding from the National Institute of Aging and support from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars program. Their findings appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Statistics regarding body weight in the United States paint a grim picture. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a whopping 68.8 percent of U.S. adults are obese or at least overweight.

The Michigan researchers considered two kinds of incentives for obese workers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. One set of subjects received an offer of $100 for every month each either met or surpassed a weight-loss objective.

Members of another group were divided into subgroups of five subjects each, with a $500 award to be divided among those who met or exceeded monthly goals. To increase competition, if some didn't succeed, the others were able to collect more than $100 each.

After a monthly weigh-in, a subject checked an automated message with information on that month's earnings. Those who didn't meet the goal heard what they would have earned if they had met it.

The results from the second group showed that group-based incentives yielded three times the weight loss than that achieved with individual rewards. Researchers anticipate that the number of employers willing to offer similar incentives will rise, in the hope of controlling healthcare costs in addition to boosting workers' health.

Employers will have a number of other acceptable ways to reward employees once the provisions of the Affordable Care Act are in effect in 2014. Among them are premium discounts or rebates and lower cost-sharing requirements for those who meet health status objectives after taking part in wellness programs.

I grew up in a family of overweight and obese individuals. I've struggled to control my weight my entire life. Based on my own weight-loss efforts and experience with rewards for success, I'd have to agree that the element of group competition can be a powerful motivator, whether connected to cash or not. It's therefore not a surprise that employees prefer competition with cash rewards for weight loss.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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