Here's A Devious Way To Get Workers To Exercise

“We know that people are irrational."

Corporate wellness programs seem like a no-brainer in theory. In order to get employees to exercise more, companies can just pay them to reach a certain number of steps walked or calories burned. Right?

Not quite, suggests a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Rather than rewarding employees with cash or perks for achieving a fitness goal, employers might consider first giving out money and then gradually taking it away from those who fail to reach their goals.

The idea of losing money for not exercising may help motivate workers, according to the study, published earlier this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“We know that people are irrational, and that they respond more to loss than gains,” Mitesh Patel, one of the researchers, told HuffPost. “People want to avoid the feeling of losing something they feel they already have. That can be very motivating."

The researchers enlisted a group of 281 slightly overweight adults and instructed them to walk 7,000 steps a day. One group of participants was paid $1.40 each day they hit the goal; another was entered into a lottery to win $5 or $50 if they completed the 7,000 steps; a third group received $42 at the beginning of the month, with $1.40 deducted each day the goal was not achieved. A control group received only feedback on their exercise and no money.

The monetary incentives were offered for 13 weeks. During that time, the group whose money could be taken away actually performed better than the others -- which surprised the researchers. They also didn't expect to see such similar results between the people who got paid to exercise and the ones who didn't get paid at all.

Participants in the penalization group hit the 7,000 steps on 45 percent of the days. Those who had the possibility of a reward achieved it just 35 percent of the time, and those in the lottery group did so 36 percent of the time. The people who only got feedback hit the goal on 30 percent of the days.

As an interesting note, the participants in the loss incentive group never actually earned the $42 upfront. The researchers paid everyone with a check at the end of the month. The money used during the study was all deducted from an imaginary account, proving that just the psychological fear of losing money is pretty strong.

The researchers hope that the data will help companies develop more effective ways of getting their employees to exercise. Standard wellness programs usually take the reward approach, like offering to supplement gym memberships or giving prizes for reaching weight or blood pressure goals. But if penalizing employees makes them a little more eager to work out, why not try that?

“If we’re going to use incentives, we should think about how it’s designed and incorporate behavioral economics,” Patel said.

Nearly half of U.S. companies have adopted wellness programs, many of which hinge on outcome-based goals like losing weight or decreasing cholesterol levels. Their actual effectiveness is contested: Some studies argue that they don’t significantly improve health.

Not to mention, when employers start emphasizing the need for workers to take better care of themselves, some worry that the burden of the health care costs get shifted onto those who are less healthy and that the programs will violate employee privacy. In 2014, CVS was sued by one of its employees for allegedly making her disclose her weight and sexual activity under a health screening program or pay $600 a year if she declined.

And while incentivizing workers to get healthy has good intentions, the fundamental message that a company conveys should be that it’s encouraging a culture of healthy behavior. No one wants to be overworked, stressed and, on top of all that, penalized for not having taken enough steps in one day. That’s pretty discouraging -- and won’t solve problems either.

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