NEW YORK -- Fifty-seven percent of employers with 500 or more employees are providing employees with a wellness program, up from 49 percent in 2006, according to MetLife’s Sixth Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study.

Although the number of smaller employers (those with less than 500 employees) that offer a wellness program has remained steady the last two years at 16 percent, the study found that 94 percent of executives at large and small companies that offer a wellness program say they are effective for reducing medical costs. Wellness programs include items such as smoking cessation, weight management, an exercise regimen or cancer screening. Only 9 percent of employers impose financial penalties on employees who do not meet wellness guidelines – a percentage that has remained steady for two years.

The study’s results also show that about four out of five employers that have wellness programs are providing incentives to encourage employee participation. Among employers that use incentives, the following motivational devices are being used:

  • 40 percent of employers provide gyms/fitness center discounts.
  • 38 percent of employers provide gifts and prizes.
  • 27 percent of employers offer a reduction in employee contributions to medical plans.
  • 17 percent of employers waive medical plan deductibles.
  • 17 percent of employers offer additional time off.
  • 14 percent of employers offer employees a credit towards their benefits purchases.
  • 2 percent of employers offer cash/bonuses.

“Health insurance is not health assurance. While health insurance can offer employees important financial protection for acute medical events, most health insurance is not designed to help employees and their employers take a preventive approach to serious conditions that can often be avoided with healthy lifestyle decisions. Helping employees see the value of wellness programs can lead to improved participation, which could affect not only their own current and future finances and productivity but that of their employers,” says Ronald Leopold, M.D. and vice president, MetLife Institutional Business.

According to the MetLife study, employers that offer wellness programs are more likely to see benefits as a very important tool for employee retention (70 percent of employers that offer wellness programs contrasted to 50 percent of employers that do not). These employers are more likely to say that the benefits programs they offer are better than competitors’ programs or the best in their industry (65 percent of employers that offer wellness programs vs. 42 percent that do not). They also say that they offer programs geared to an aging work force (47 percent of employers that offer wellness programs vs. 6 percent that do not), and they say that their benefits program is an important reason that employees are attracted to their company (51 percent of employers that offer wellness programs contrasted to 22 percent of employers that do not).

The survey, which was completed in 2007, involved 1,380 full-time employees and 1,652 managers at companies throughout the country and in a variety of industries.