Research/studies Worker health and wellness Incentives Worker Health and Wellness

Penalties more effective than incentives in wellness programs: study

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Philadelphia – Financial penalties are more effective at helping workers reach physical activity goals than monetary rewards in a wellness program, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania.

During the 26-week study, 281 participants were given a fitness objective of completing 7,000 steps each day. During the first half of the study, participants were randomly placed in one of four groups, including a control group with no monetary incentive, a group that received $1.40 each day they met the goal, a group that was allowed to enter a lottery with a potential prize of $1.40 per day for achieving the goal, and a group that received $42 at the beginning of each month and lost $1.40 each day the goal was not met.

For the second half of the study, participants received feedback instead of incentives. An app on participants’ smartphones tracked their steps.

Researchers found that participants who could lose the $42 reward met the walking goal 45 percent of the time – nearly 50 percent more than the control group. Offering the $1.40 reward for meeting the goal was no more effective in motivating participants than offering no reward, as these participants met the goal about 30 percent to 35 percent of the time.

The way an incentive is “framed” is crucial in determining its effectiveness, researchers concluded, according to a university press release.

Almost all of the participants (96 percent) continued with the study three months after they stopped receiving incentives, indicating devices and apps can encourage people to increase their activity.

“Although most people know that exercise is good for their health, more than 50 percent of adults in the United States don’t get enough of it,” study lead author Mitesh S. Patel, assistant professor of Medicine and Health Care Management in the university’s Perelman School of Medicine and The Wharton School, said in the release. “Workplace wellness programs aimed at increasing physical activity and other healthy behaviors have also become increasingly popular, but there’s a lack of understanding about how to design incentives within these programs. Our findings suggest that these programs could result in better outcomes if they designed financial incentives based on principles from behavioral economics such as loss aversion.”

The study was published online Feb. 16 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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