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Your boss thinks you're fat

If you've already broken your New Year's resolution to lose weight, here's something to lure you back to good diet and exercise: Your employer might pay you to slim down.

A growing number of employers are giving workers incentives -- cash, prizes or health insurance premium discounts -- to lose weight.

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Four out of five midsize and large employers planned to offer some type of financial health incentive in 2012, according to the 2011/2012 Staying@Work survey by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health.

Not all of those incentives were tied to weight loss, but with two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, weight management is a popular target.

The weighty costs of obesity

Being overweight or obese increases risk for expensive maladies such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Besides boosting health care costs, those conditions can increase absenteeism and lower productivity at work.

"Benefits managers are looking for solutions that have a tangible impact on the bottom line," says David Roddenberry, co-founder of HealthyWage, a New York-based company that designs weight-loss contests and challenges for employers and individuals.

Weight loss incentive programsDon't worry, though, that joining a program will broadcast your weight or health conditions. Your boss doesn't get to know how much you weigh or whether your cholesterol levels are through the roof. When employers set up health incentive programs, they see only the aggregate results, such as the number of participants and the average amount of weight lost. Your individual health information remains private.

HealthyWage has about 400 clients, including such big corporate names as 7-Eleven, Zale's and Office Depot, and eight of the nation's largest health care systems. In 2011, it paid out more than $450,000 in prizes to participants who lost weight.

Through the program, you bet money to lose. In the "10 percent challenge," for instance, you pay $100 and win $200 if you lose 10 percent of your body weight in six months. In the "BMI Challenge," you bet $300 to win $1,000 if you go from a BMI above 30 to one below 25 in 12 months. Teams of five people can compete for a $10,000 prize. Participants get their weight verified weekly at health clubs, doctors' offices or Weight Watchers meetings. The reward money comes from HealthyWage sponsors, such as health insurers, hospitals and food companies.

Employers who participate sometimes cover the entry fees for their workers to enter the challenges, or they can match the workers' contributions to double the payoff.

Money helps you lose

Roddenberry says the idea for HealthyWage came from a 2008 University of Pennsylvania study that showed cash incentives helped people lose weight.

With the popularity of "The Biggest Loser" TV show, managers at First Horizon, a financial services company based in Memphis, Tenn., thought HealthyWage would be a fun way to motivate its employees.

"With our culture at First Horizon, it really is employee focused," says Kim Simmons, a human resources analyst and chairperson of the company's wellness committee. "We are concerned about total well-being. If you have that whole, engaged employee who's happy and healthy, it makes for a more productive workplace."

See how a good health plan at work leads to employee loyalty.

First Horizon also offers workers a chance to participate in Virgin HealthMiles, a program that pays people to get moving. Workers at First Horizon who wear pedometers to keep track of their steps can earn as much as $600 in a year just for walking.

"We're always looking for different ways to engage our employees," Simmons says. "We realize there's not a one-size-fits-all program. Every program or initiative we offer may not be right for everyone."

More cash and prizes ahead

A couple of factors will drive the health incentive trend forward.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the federal health care reform law, increased the amount employers can spend on incentives to encourage workers to get healthy. Currently they can give incentives of up to 20 percent of the total health insurance premium. Starting in 2014, the limit will rise to 30 percent. Companies are busily putting programs in place to take advantage of the higher threshold.

Meanwhile, benefits managers are looking for anything they can do to lower health care expenses. The average annual premium for employer-sponsored family health insurance plans in 2011 was $15,022, which is 62 percent higher than in 2003, according to a 2012 Commonwealth Fund report.

"Employers really want to help employees get and stay healthy," Roddenberry says.

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