Safety and Health Incentives: A Holistic Approach

It makes good sense to consider wellness, health care, risk prevention, and safety awareness as parts of a total comprehensive health promotion mindset.

Incentives have arrived. That’s stating the obvious when you consider American companies spend $32+ billion annually on merchandise sales for a variety of rewards, recognition, and motivation programs.

When it comes to employee health and safety applications, incentives have been primarily limited to encourage avoidance of occurrences and exposures. While rewarding employees for reducing the number of safety incidents may seem like a great idea, it can sometimes backfire. There have been cases where there has been a reduction in the reporting of accidents, rather than an actual reduction in occurrences. For example, a rewards program launched by a manufacturing company not long ago gave employees credits for each workday without a reported incident. The reward for achievement of the target objectives was a raffle for huge prizes, including a fishing boat and trailer. While the program was enthusiastically embraced by employees and successful in reducing the number of reported incidences, the actual number of incidents did not go down, just the reporting of occurrences. Needless to say, it was a poorly conceived and poorly designed program. Not to mention extremely costly at many levels.

So where can incentives do the most good in the world of employee health and safety? The key is to use incentives to proactively engage employees in overall health promotion and risk prevention, the two of which go hand-in-hand. Historically, there has been a lack of connectivity between risk management and employee benefits, which has limited the coordination of health promotion and wellness initiatives. With the advent of health care consumerism and migration of employees from traditional health plans to Consumer Directed Healthplans (CDHPs), an increasing shift in personal accountability for benefit management and personal well-being is occurring within worker populations. With this transformation, there is an opportunity for employers to exploit heightened employee awareness and engagement in medical benefits and personal health in the creation of a more comprehensive, coordinated, and strategic approach to health and safety in the workplace.

When it comes to incentives, it makes good sense—for employers as well as employees—to consider wellness, health care, risk prevention, and safety awareness as parts of a total comprehensive health promotion mindset. Sociology studies suggest that getting employees to focus on prescriptive behaviors, things that one ought do, rather than on proscriptive behaviors, things that one ought not do, is far more effective overall. Not only do employees directly benefit from the changed behaviors, but also these behavioral changes tend to positively influence other behaviors.

For example, there is the anecdote about the exercise physiologist who joked about the difficulty of smoking while riding a bicycle or jogging. The point is, active employees are far more likely to stop smoking or to experience improved results from a smoking cessation program than their colleagues who are more “couch bound.” Similarly, employees who, after ergonomic assessment of job tasks, modify work environments and/or alter physical motions are more likely to apply lessons learned outside the work environment.

Whether in improving personal health or reducing the risk of work site injury or exposure, there is a strong connectivity between both direct changes in behavior and the secondary and tertiary effects that positive changes have on other harmful behaviors or work site practices. To a large extent, it’s about creating a culture of health and safety, both of which go hand in hand when incentives are aligned, tied to measureable activities or triggers, and marketed and promoted aggressively in the work site.

Many Avenues to Desired Outcomes
Programs being launched today by employers in support of the introduction of CDHPs are focusing on the triggers or employee activities that drive desired results. The biggest and least costly area is prevention: preventing avoidable diseases and injuries. Strategic incentive programs can be used to effectively drive desired engagement, compliance, and desired outcomes associated with employer occupational health and safety programs. For example, specific rewards and incentives, along with associated metrics, can be created for on-the-job safety programs:

• Training and educational program • Policy and practice adherence to administrative, emergency, and risk management procedures

• Management effectiveness in limiting risk and liability exposure through successful application of program protocols

Safety incentives can help to increase the potential for greater and more efficient worker productivity, decrease absenteeism, and, when deployed properly, reduce occupational injuries. These types of incentive programs, combined with overall health promotion and benefits incentives, can lead to behavioral changes that will optimally lead to improved health and reduction in health care expenses.

The resulting health “mindfulness” will naturally lead to increased awareness about workplace safety. Looking beyond safety, some of the health-related behaviors that can be influenced by incentives include: 1) completing personal and family Health Risk Assessments (HRAs) and participating in health management and wellness programs; 2) choosing and participating in CDHPs such as High Deductible Healthplans (HDHPs); 3) enrolling in Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) when participating in a qualified HDHP; 4) investing in HSAs to pay for incremental health care expenditures and save for health care in retirement with pretax contributions; 5) improving personal bio-metrics, such as blood sugar, body fat, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc., to optimize health status, regardless of fitness.

The use of safety incentives and overall health promotion incentives is a win-win for all involved. Other industries are reaping the rewards of strategic reward, recognition, and motivation programs. Now, it’s our turn.

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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