At some companies, financial incentives for wellness programs can reach up to $3,000 per employee.  But, on average, employers spend about $220 on each employee, up from $163 in 2009, according to a new survey on wellness programs.

Buck Consultants recently released the survey report, "Working Well: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies," that shows only 11% of U.S. companies spend more than $500 per employee per year on wellness. In addition, the average cost per employee on internal costs was $187, while average cost per worker on vendor fees totaled $122.

Despite the generous rewards, employers remain uncertain on whether financial incentives actually work in influencing behavioral changes among employees.

For example, more than half of participants thought incentive rewards were moderately effective (33%), minimally effective (24%) and not effective (4%). Yet many employers plan on increasing the annual value of the rewards in upcoming years, according to the survey.

"This rise in use despite uncertain results may reflect a belief in the need to continue to increase the size or value of the incentive and/or experiment with differing approaches and types of incentives, in order to find the optimal motivational mix," observe analysts at Buck Consultants. 

The survey, which is in its fourth consecutive year, represents the responses of senior and mid-level professionals who work on corporate health and wellness programs.  The survey participants come from nearly 1,248 organizations based in 47 countries and employ more than 13 million workers.

Other key survey findings include:

  • Gifts or merchandise (49%) and raffles or prize drawings (47%) are among the most popular with employers. Also prevalent are discounts and subsidies for preventive health services (49%), such as annual physical checkups and appropriate preventive screenings.
  • About 37% of respondents subsidized membership fees for fitness facilities, while 32% did the same for wellness classes, such as smoking cessation or weight loss. 
  • The fastest-growing components of wellness programs are technology-driven tools. In three years, employers around the world expect a six-fold increase in their use of mobile technology – such as smartphones – to support employee wellness initiatives.
  • Globally, 66% of respondents have a formal wellness strategy, a significant increase from 49% in 2007. Incentive rewards (and penalties) are used by many employers — 62% in the U.S. and 19% to 41% elsewhere.
  • Rewards are most typically tied to participation in health screenings or educational activities. There is a growing trend of rewarding those employees that achieve specific health-related goals, such as maintaining cholesterol or body weight within a healthy range, or abstaining from tobacco use.
  • Geography also shapes the aims of a wellness program. For example, reducing workplace stress is the top driver of wellness programs in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa.  In the United States, the lack of physical activity is the top driver, and stress ranks much lower (sixth) as a health risk targeted by these programs.

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