Financial incentives fail to motivate employees to lose weight, Penn study finds

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    Employers looking to slash medical costs often encourage workers to eat better or exercise more, sometimes going so far as to offer financial rewards. But a new study from the University of Pennsylvania finds that the way most workplaces try to incentivize healthy living doesn’t work.

    Researchers recruited about 200 obese employees and challenged them to shed 5 percent of their body weight over one year. All were given access to scales at work to monitor their progress, and some were offered bonuses worth $550 if they succeeded.

    Workers received the money through a discount on their health insurance premiums — starting either immediately after achieving the goal or in the next year — or as a cash reward in a daily lottery.

    Despite the promise of extra money, participants on average failed to lose more than a pound or two.

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    “We really didn’t see any significant change from zero,” said Penn physician and first author Mitesh Patel.

    Some individuals were successful – about one in five – but that rate was the same as a control group that wasn’t paid anything. The results were published this month in the journal Health Affairs.

    Patel said he wasn’t surprised that the premium discount, which is most employers’ go-to method, was less inspiring than commonly believed.

    “Premium adjustments are often bundled into your larger paycheck or other deductions and spread across your biweekly payments, so they’re much less noticeable,” he said.

    Simply offering more money isn’t likely to be the answer, at least by itself. Patel said companies need to be more creative and borrow strategies from behavioral economics.

    “Unbundling it from the premium, figuring out how to motivate people by looking at these predictable barriers to behavior change,” he said, “and then providing supportive feedback along the way are important pieces to these programs.”

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