Do incentives really make a difference?

Business women talking

Corporate wellness programs are commonplace these days as employers strive to create a healthier, happier, more productive workforce. According to a research report from RAND Corporation, about 33% of smaller US firms and 80% of larger firms offer wellness programs. And most of them – about 60% of the smallest employers and 90% of other employers – use incentives to encourage participation in the wellness program. The big question is – do these incentives really make a difference?

When it comes to participation, the answer is yes. The report showed that overall the participation rate was about 40% when there was an incentive. This was double the rate that non-incentivized programs achieved. Not surprising really – after all, most of us were trained by our parents to react to incentives: “Finish your homework and I’ll give you a treat,” etc.

But the real question is, do these incentives really work to create healthier, happier, more productive employees? This question has caused much debate and controversy.

On one side of the argument are those who point to the detection of previously un-diagnosed health problems as a result of increased participation in health screening; and there are those who believe that if you simply get someone to do something for three weeks it becomes a habit. On the other side are those who point to the evidence that external (or extrinsic) motivators do not result in sustained behavior change and may in fact encourage negative behaviors such as cheating. The Internet is filled with stories about wellness program participants tying exercise trackers to their dog or ceiling fan, and in one case a lawsuit revealed that Kansas City employees defrauded their health insurance program of more than $300,000 in cash incentives by falsely claiming to have run marathons and competed in triathlons.

It’s easy to see that incentives are a double-edged sword and need to be used wisely. Ideally, they should be used as a catalyst… a sparkling lure to entice people into participating in a one-time activity such as a screening, or into trying a new wellness activity. However, achieving a lasting benefit is unlikely unless the activity cultivates an inner sense of motivation (known as intrinsic motivation) that gradually replaces the extrinsic motivation created by the incentive.

At SelfHelpWorks, our behavior change programs focus keenly on creating true, intrinsic motivation. While many of our participants register for one of our cognitive-based courses partially (or wholly) because their corporate wellness program has lured them with an attractive extrinsic incentive, they soon discover a new sense of purpose, a vision and motivation that is deeply personal and enduring. It is this intrinsic motivation that keeps them engaged and drives genuine, lasting behavior change.

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