Employers who want their workers to get healthy may get some response if they offer financial incentives or penalties, such as paying less or more for health benefits. However, the effect will probably be short-lived.
Results of a study show that the enticements do not lead to long-term lifestyle changes.
The biggest problem seems to be the novelty of programs geared toward smoking cessation, weight management, fitness and stress reduction wear off, and employees lose interest, said the study.
And the unhealthy workers just adjust to the additional cost of their health benefits.
In the study, more than 2,400 Michigan hospital workers participated in a program, called the HealthPlus Health Quotient program, from 1994 to 1997.
In the program a worker''s health benefit costs were adjusted either upward or downward by as much as $1,200 a year, depending upon the employee''s own health risks.
The Employers also offered lunchtime health lectures, classes on smoking cessation, weight management, fitness and stress reduction as well as discounts at local fitness clubs and on exercise equipment.
Researchers found that although many employees did not participate, those who did tended to show improvement in their risk for chronic disease.
Overall, slightly less than 30 percent of workers enrolled in at least one activity per year, according to the report in the December issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Those who took part in the programs were less likely to be ill and less likely to call in sick.
However, the program had a greater impact the first year and the effect tended to decline with time.
"This paper suggests that dramatic changes in incentives -- including disincentives in the form of reduced employer contributions to a benefit package -- can impact on lifestyle," said Dr. Aryeh Stein, lead author of the study from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. "But this effect lessens over time, perhaps because people become habituated to the new benefit scales."
Study authors suggested that one might need to consider variation in incentives and disincentives from year to year, however, this would be difficult for benefits administrators and unpopular among employees.
More research is needed to determine which employees are most at risk of health problems, and what can be done to encourage them to make healthy lifestyle changes, the authors concluded.
by Virginia Sutcliffe