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Employee Benefits

Wellness Plans: What Actually Works

More-generous incentives boost participation and become an investment that grows.

Employers are making headway in using wellness plans to create healthier workforces, and that leads to lower costs. The most successful employers use significant incentives, such as lower health insurance premiums or cash rewards, to spur exercising and healthful eating. Many also offer on-site fitness centers and healthy dinners to go, as well as outreach programs to family members. All agree that visible participation by company leadership and strong communication about what wellness programs offer are vital to success.

Here’s what some of the more successful employers are doing:

General Mills has its cafeterias offer smaller portions at lower prices. Labels identify which selections are the most healthful. Food receipts show nutritional information. New buildings have attractive, open stairwells with changing art to encourage workers to use the stairs. The result: The percentage of employees with two or more health risks declined from 68% in 2005 to 29% in 2008.

Johnson & Johnson provides up to $500 in incentives for each worker who joins in its wellness programs, boosting the participation rate to 90%. The company also bans smoking at all sites and offers smoking cessation classes. The percentage of smokers fell from 12% in 1995-1999 to about 4% in 2007-2008. And the company has seen a cumulative savings of $250 million over 10 years.

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Baptist Health South Florida offers free personal health counseling. Of the 500 workers who received one-on-one counseling for three straight years, medical claim costs dropped 30% in the third year, saving the firm $1 million.

IBM lets employees choose from among five cash incentives, for a maximum of $300 a year, to improve their health by dieting, quitting smoking, etc. Of workers enrolled in the smoke-free program, nearly 25% shook the habit. IBM estimates that the $80 million a year it spends on wellness programs yields a $191-million return to the bottom line.


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