retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

For companies grappling with skyrocketing health insurance premiums and overweight, at-risk employees, a new study has reaffirmed what any kid who collected a buck for every A already knows:

Money talks.

And cash is an even more effective motivator when employees participate in a weight loss challenge as part of a team or in a “group” program, according to a study released Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Current employee health incentive programs range from positive nutrition and cutting edge fitness efforts to a more controversial approach recently implemented by CVS. As reported here on MNB, the pharmacy chain is requiring its 200,000 employees to participate in a voluntary “wellness review,” paid for by CVS, measuring factors such as weight, blood pressure and body fat, or face an annual $600 penalty.

But the financial carrot-on-the-stick approach has more momentum, as the use of cash, gift-cards and other prizes to reward workers for adopting healthier lifestyles has risen 69% since 2009, according to a 2012 survey of 512 employers.

And will likely continue to do so as the Affordable Care Act allows employers to use an increased share of insurance premiums to offer workers inducements to improve overall health and lose weight. And starting in 2014, the health care reform act expands employers’ ability to reward workers who meet health status goals through wellness programs.

This newest study from the University of Michigan followed 105 obese employees at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for a five-month clinical trial. The individuals on “teams” who could share a $500 reward lost more weight than those who went it alone on the diet and could win $100. Equally importantly, the “team” members maintained more weight loss three months after the financial incentives ended.

Critics say that such “Biggest Loser”-type contests can create unhealthy crash dieting competitions, lead to “yo-yo” weight loss and gain cycles and fail to address other health issues such as high blood pressure and smoking. Not to mention cause tension and even sweet-tooth sabotage among co-workers.

I would counter such criticism by citing an innovative program -- the “Nu-Me Weight Loss Challenge” currently underway in Meijer’s eight divisions and 199 stores across its five-state Midwest footprint. Meijer has teamed up with the nutritional scoring program, NuVal, for a three-month weight loss contest with prize money totaling $15,000. It is Meijer’s fourth challenge, but first with NuVal, the scoring system which calculates and summarizes a grocery product’s nutritional information into a single number on a score of 1-100 (the higher, the better).

Meijer has 1,004 teams participating – ranging in size from one to 15 members – with all company employees encouraged to be involved and a focus on health. There are weekly weigh-ins and rewards, and excitement throughout Meijer, said Amanda Senecal, the retailer’s wellness program specialist, who oversees a full slate of health and fitness programs throughout the year. “It’s about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, losing weight, and having fun,” she said, noting the partnership with NuVal is an added benefit.

While I think the term “holistic” is over-used, it best describes the approach employers should use to maintain and promote employee wellness. Such programs are no longer perks but should be part of any company’s strategic business plan to manage costs. The employer and employee need to be on the same side, which will in turn save money, improve productivity and morale, and improve quality of life through health. A team effort, and a win-win for all.

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