Study: Incentive-based employer wellness programs effective, but demonstrate diminishing effects

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Media note: Watch study author Jean Abraham, Ph.D., discuss her study findings here.

New research from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota finds incentive-based employer wellness programs were effective in promoting fitness center attendance among participants, but that its impact begins to diminish after their first year in the program. 

The findings were published today in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

“Incentive-based programs that encourage employees to go to the gym are a popular type of wellness program offered by many large employers today,” said Jean Abraham, Ph.D., lead author and associate professor of health policy and management in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “In this study, we sought to understand what happens over time with respect to employees’ fitness center attendance.”  

The study analyzed data from University of Minnesota employees from 2008-2010. Beginning January 1, 2008, the incentive-based Fitness Rewards Program (FRP), now known as Fit Choices, was launched to promote regular exercise among University employees and adult dependents covered by its health insurance plan. The FRP offered a monthly financial reward or credit of $20 per adult member for utilizing a fitness center at least 8 times per month.

Results show among eligible employees, 42 percent initiated program participation and 24 percent earned the financial reward at least once between 2008 and 2010.

Other key findings:

  • On average, FRP participants utilized a fitness center for 7.0 months each year and earned the financial reward 4.5 months during the year.
  • Months of fitness center utilization and months of earning the financial reward dropped, on average, for participants in their second and third years of the program.
  • Time barriers were found to be a significant factor associated with having fewer months of attending the fitness center at least 8 times and earning the financial reward.
  • Employees 51 years of age and older demonstrated higher levels of fitness center utilization and months of earning the financial reward relative to employees 18 to 35 years of age.
  • Participants were more likely to utilize a fitness center in the fall and winter and less likely in the spring and summer where weather conditions are more favorable for outdoor activities in Minnesota.

“This research suggests that there may be a ‘novelty’ effect when an incentive-based program of this type is first launched and that over time, employers may need to consider modifications to the program design in order to maintain employees’ engagement,” said Abraham. “More research is needed to understand the effectiveness of different program designs and incentive structures on employees’ participation and their health behaviors.”  

This study was funded by the National Cancer Institute.