Financial incentives are playing a growing role in increasing employee participation in health improvement programs, according to a study from the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments. The survey, which looked at the offerings of 147 mid- to large-size companies in various industries nationwide, follows up on 2009 research.

Employers used several types of incentives in 2010 to encourage employees to participate in health improvement programs, the study found. These included offering cash and gift cards and making additional contributions to health savings accounts.

The incentives provided by employers averaged $430 per employee in 2010, which was a 65 percent increase from $260 in 2009. Additionally, half of all companies that provided incentives in 2010 also offered them to dependents of employees, at an average value of $420.

Twelve percent of companies used negative incentives, such as reducing employer contributions to health plans, to encourage program participation. More employers (62 percent) offered incentives last year than in 2009 (57 percent).

According to the research, the majority of employers surveyed agreed that incentive-based programs had a better-than-expected success rate at increasing employee participation.

In exchange for incentives, employees participated in a variety of programs in four main categories: health-risk management (such as on-site flu shots); lifestyle management (such as smoking-cessation programs); condition management (such as nurse phone lines) and communication and education (via company intranet wellness websites).

Excluding incentives, the study found that the average employer spent $154 per employee on health-improvement programs, compared with $108 in 2009. Condition management programs (e.g., diabetes-treatment monitoring) ate up 41 percent of that expenditure, while health-risk management programs (e.g., health fairs) consumed 20 percent, and lifestyle management programs (e.g., stress management) consumed 29 percent of those funds.

For more on employer wellness programs, click here and here.