Should employers offer incentives to employees to stay healthy? According to a recent study, 75 percent of companies already are, offering an average of $460 per employee in incentives during 2011 to encourage employees to participate in health improvement programs. Not only are these companies offering incentives, but they have increased the amount they are offering from $430 in 2010 and $260 in 2009.
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These incentives have undoubtedly helped to improve the participation of employees in such programs, with 60 percent of companies stating that incentives improved participation. But, is it ethical for companies to essentially pay their employees to get healthy?
According to Alex John London, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University's Dietrich College of humanities and social sciences and director of the University's Center for Ethics and Policy, this practice is ethical for a number of reasons.
"Ethics guidelines do not distinguish between giving a person money as an incentive to enroll in a research study and conducting a study to see if giving someone money as an incentive to stop smoking or to lose weight helps such people stop smoking or lose weight," London said.
According to London, since these employees are being encouraged to participate in programs that will ultimately help them, questions about the ethics of this practice are not valid.
"Some common concerns about using incentives to increase participation in research, such as that attractive incentives will undermine participant autonomy, are misplaced when incentives are used to overcome economic obstacles or a lack of effective motivation, and when recipients are incentivized to engage in health-related behaviors or practices with which they are already familiar and which they regard as beneficial or worthwhile," London said.
Additionally, the results of such research would only benefit others, particularly when they look to see if these programs truly motivate employees to get healthy. For this reason, London said that offering incentives to employees must be considered ethical.
"I know a lot of people who would like to quit smoking or lose some weight but who can't seem to stick to the relevant care plan," London said. "Researchers want to know if providing cash incentives for sticking with these plans will help people succeed. They also want to know if offering cash payments for early HIV testing or for seeking treatment after a positive test will improve patient care and help contain the spread of HIV. The only way to answer these questions is to study the use of such incentives in research."
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