Companies Boost Healthy Habits

Many large employers sponsor wellness programs, despite some employees' distrust of their motives.

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At Pepsi Bottling Group, employees are offered $75 to complete a health risk assessment. After the evaluation, workers found to be overweight or smokers, those with high stress levels, blood pressure, or cholesterol, and even employees who report not eating healthful foods are targeted for free coaching to manage the condition.

In an effort to control spiraling healthcare costs, many employers now reward healthy habits or even give employees a motherly nag to exercise and see the doctor for a checkup. The goal: keep employees well, productive, and less expensive to insure.

Seventy-two percent of large employers offer health risk assessments, according to a survey of 573 large employers by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health. Many of the companies invest in on-site medical clinics and call-in medical help lines to keep workers healthier and curb costs. Some 42 percent of the companies surveyed have programs to reduce obesity among employees.

Pepsi Bottling Group won this year's Stanford University's C. Everett Koop National Health Award for having improved employee health and decreased medical costs. The company helped 27 percent of employees who participated in tobacco cessation activities to become nonsmokers within a year; 6 percent more reduced their tobacco use.

Pepsi Bottling's activities in six areas—back care, nutrition, physical activity, stress, tobacco cessation, and weight—reduced monthly healthcare costs by $118.55 per participant over two years, saving the company an estimated $21.7 million. Pepsi Bottling cited "multimedia campaigns, aggressive incentives, and targeted outreach" as keys to its success.

The vast majority of employees think that wellness programs, such as lower-cost health screenings and reminders about annual checkups or prescription refills, can help people develop healthier lifestyles and that employers offering such programs show concern for their workers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Yet at the same time, a sizable portion of workers say employers with wellness programs are only concerned about their bottom line (65 percent) and are intruding on worker privacy (45 percent). "Deciding whether or not to participate in a wellness program requires making a trade-off between the benefits of participating in a wellness program and concerns about privacy," says Katherine Binns, division president for healthcare research at Harris Interactive. "It's always useful to investigate how the program is structured, what it provides, and what its benefits have been for others so they can weigh whether or not it is right for them."

Less than about one third of employees believe that companies should be able to require employees to attend smoking-cessation or weight-loss programs. "Plans can certainly incentivize or penalize unhealthy lifestyles," Binns says. "But most people do not think that it's fair to ask people with unhealthy lifestyles to pay higher premiums."

Nonetheless, employees are often willing to give wellness programs a try if it improves their own bottom line as well as the company's. "Many employers are realizing that they need to dangle carrots in front of their employees in order to get them engaged," says Ron Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University. "Some people get involved to get the financial incentive, to get the reward, to get the gift."

If a wellness program reduced health insurance premiums by 10 percent, half of employed Americans surveyed say they'd be likely to participate. "The only way this is going to be effective is if you do it on its own merits," cautions Goetzel. "What starts out as an extrinsic incentive to do this should turn into an intrinsic desire to have a longer, better-quality life."