Penalty, Not Reward, May Get Workers Healthier
Monetary penalties beat rewards in motivating workers to get healthier, study finds
By Dennis Thompson
MONDAY, Feb. 15, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Financial penalties work better than cash rewards for motivating employees to meet physical activity goals in a workplace wellness program, a new study reports.
Employees met a daily walking distance goal more often when every missed day meant money removed from a set monthly reward, as opposed to earning a cash incentive each day they met the goal, researchers reported.
The results showed that a psychological concept called "loss aversion" is a stronger motivator than straightforward financial rewards in helping employees adopt healthy behaviors, said lead study author Dr. Mitesh Patel. He is an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"We know that people tend to be irrational, but in predictable ways," Patel said. "They tend to respond more to losses than gains. This is the way our brains are wired."
The study was released online Feb. 15 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In the study, Patel and his colleagues set up a 13-week wellness program for 281 overweight or obese employees. The study volunteers were randomly placed into one of four groups.
Two groups received cash incentives for meeting a daily 7,000-step walking goal, but the incentives were framed in opposite ways, Patel said.
The straight incentive group was told that they could earn $1.40 every day they met the walking goal, up to a monthly total of $42.
On the other hand, the penalty group had $42 deposited up front each month in a "virtual account," Patel said. Every day they didn't meet the goal, $1.40 would be removed.
"It was the same amount of money, but dramatically different outcomes," Patel said.
The third group's incentive was based on a lottery system, by which they were eligible to win $5 or $50 for each day they met the same goal. The fourth group (the "control" group) received no reward at all --- they were just provided a pedometer and received feedback on how well they were doing, the researchers said.