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University employees rewarded for exercise, healthy lifestyle

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2013

University employees have a shot to earn a small stipend and take advantage of the benefits of MHealthy fitness classes.

Founded in 2005 as part of initiatives by University President Mary Sue Coleman, MHealthy is now offering monetary incentives up to $100 for faculty who complete at least two approved health-promoting activities.

The pilot program began with MHealthy in 2005, and the first five-year plan was formulated in 2008. A new five-year plan focuses on decreasing the percentage of employees with a high health risk.

Administrators at MHealthy said a recent evaluation suggested the program is making a difference in regard to various health risk factors and is ultimately combating the cost escalation of health-care cost escalation.

The incentive program began in 2009 as part of MHealthy’s goal of a healthy campus community as a result of research that suggested monetary incentives can influence behavior.

Requirements to achieve incentives have changed and broadened over time in response to faculty interests. Options include enrolling in fitness classes, undergoing a biometric screening and completing a health risk survey.

Laurita Thomas, the University’s associate vice president for human resources, said it’s important that employees complete the health risk survey that's released every few years. The survey helps the program tailor to the specific needs of University faculty.

“We could do something that everybody else is doing, but our community may need something different,” Thomas said. “The questionnaire gives us data to track how well we’re doing over time.”

For example, the most recent questionnaire found that back pain is particularly prevalent among University employees.

Thomas said there are many health-friendly initiatives on campus, such as bike paths, healthy eating options and late-night programs that give students an alternative to less healthy weekend activities.

Due to recent changes, those covered by University healthcare plans, like spouces of faculty can complete the health questionnaire and enroll in various MHealthy programs.

“If the whole family is working on health, the employee is more likely to be successful,” said Thomas.

University employees can earn $50 by completing the survey, and then earn another $50 by completing an approved activity. Thomas said the incentive cash supply comes from a combination of University investments and individual contributions.

By 2013, the program aims to have 70 percent of all employees participating in MHealthy’s Active U, a 12-week activity challenge to improve overall fitness. Currently, 55 percent of employees are enrolled in Active U.

Brandon Hemmings, a health-care analyst for the University’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation, said wellness programs are becoming increasingly popular. A significant number of employers are either developing or continuing to use of similar programs.

Provisions in the Affordable Care Act are also encouraging employers to start such programs to promote good health, Hemmings said. Unfortunately, Hemmings added that no definitive long-term studies have been done to examine if the benefits of these programs are sustainable among employees or if they really save employers money.

“If your main (desired) outcome is employee satisfaction — promoting a culture of health, those … might be reasons for employers to continue using these program.”