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PAMF Researcher Reviews Impact of Employee Wellness Programs

Seventy-four percent of employers who offer health insurance also offer an employee wellness program. Options such as smoking cessation groups and walking programs encourage employees to set and achieve health goals in exchange for discounted health insurance premiums. In January 2014, the government allowed employers to increase the incentive discount, from 20 percent to 30 percent of the total health insurance premium cost.

But do employee wellness programs actually work? The Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute (PAMFRI) recently published a commentary in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on this question.

Lenny Lesser, M.D.

Lenny Lesser, M.D., MSHS

According to Lenard Lesser, M.D., MSHS, PAMFRI Assistant Research Physician, while monetary incentives may help employees start to make changes, sustaining those changes in the long term is far more challenging.

“These programs do not address key factors that impact public health: marketing, pricing and the easy availability of unhealthy food,” said Dr. Lesser. “It also unfairly places the responsibility on individuals to change health indices over which they have little personal control. Ignoring environmental and biological forces that contribute to obesity can undermine a program’s ability to help people reach weight outcomes or change health behavior.”

But financial incentives are not all bad. “Employers should create and incentivize opportunities for employees to engage in healthy behavior in the workplace – subsidizing healthy meals, providing standing workstations and time and space for physical activity, and removing sugary beverages,” said Dr. Lesser.

These strategies prevent the stigmatization and ethical problems associated with incentivizing weight loss and provide ways to empower and support employees in their efforts to become healthier.

The commentary will appear in the April 2014 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.