Bowl of salad next to a laptop

Wellness programs worth the weight

The promise of cash can get people to participate in employee wellness programs. But that incentive alone may not be enough for overweight workers to win their battles of the bulge.

Researchers at UWM’s College of Health Sciences have conducted several studies about the effectiveness of employee wellness programs, or EWPs. Good EWPs are important to employers, because employees who maintain a healthy weight are less likely to develop chronic health problems, which lead to using more sick time and higher insurance costs.

Two studies showed that cash incentives attract employees to the programs, but it’s the quality and variety of the program that keep them participating, says Ron Cisler, College of Health Sciences dean and a professor of health informatics and administration.

Cisler conducted studies with two Milwaukee companies that offer EWPs with cash incentives. At both workplaces, participants showed marked improvement toward reducing their body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight. They also lowered their triglycerides, a risk factor for diabetes, while decreasing their blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol. Most participants were middle-aged and relatively healthy but had an average BMI of 27, which is considered overweight.

Cisler says the success of both programs stemmed as much from how they were structured as the incentive amounts. “They were created as yearlong wellness challenges,” he says, “with a whole menu of things people could choose to be part of.”

Ron Cisler and Jennifer Fink preparing a salad
Ron Cisler and Jennifer Fink of the College of Health Sciences say successful employee wellness programs require more than cash incentives and good intentions. (UWM Photo/Pete Amland)

One program, for example, let workers accumulate points by completing activities. The number of points was linked to the amount of their incentive – between $250 and $1,000. Another reason for the encouraging outcomes, Cisler says, could be that these workers continued their participation over two consecutive years, boosting their feeling of control.

Other research found that demographics play a role in predicting whether employees will try to lose weight using an EWP. Jennifer Fink, a UWM assistant professor of health informatics and administration, studied the data of about 20,000 Aurora Health Care employees from the last five years.

Fink discovered that older, white women making less than $45,000 annually are more likely to participate, so program administrators should find ways to cater to younger employees, men and ethnic minorities.

Many employees lost weight, but Fink’s results also demonstrated that long-term commitment was important to a program’s success. Aurora saw a steady decline in the number of obese workers who participated in each of the five study years.

“Many believe they can lose weight in six months,” Fink says. “But if they don’t, they also lose the cash incentive – and perhaps the motivation to keep at it.”