Drive employee engagement with next generation incentive designs

Employers offer incentives to help drive employee engagement, create a culture of health and decrease the financial burden of a high-deductible or premiums.

When used strategically, incentives can be very powerful; however, when used tactically, they can fail to deliver a meaningful return on investment.

An Optum® study, “Ten Years of Health and Well-being at Work,” surveyed 500 U.S.-based employers on various topics related to workplace well-being. One of the topics was incentives.

The study found that 95% of employers are using various forms of incentives, including1:

  • Discounts
  • Health account contributions
  • Premium reductions
  • Vacation/personal days
  • Services subscriptions
  • Giveaways/merchandise
  • Gift cards
  • Points-based rewards
  • Charitable donations

The study also found that 66% of employers find their incentives strategy to be effective, which is up from 44% in 2016.2 One of the key reasons why this number isn’t higher is because incentives alone don’t drive employee engagement.

In order to have a successful strategy, incentives designs must be part of a positive work culture with a leadership team that supports the program and communicates it effectively. The approach must also be designed in a simplified manner that employees can easily understand.

The future of incentives — it’s all about giving back

Today, incentive designs are seeing a shift in mentality. As discussed at the 2019 HERO Forum, making money is no longer enough as people want to do good in their communities. Volunteering and being connected is great for health and wellbeing, and it helps connect employees to the mission, vision and values of their companies.

Historically, incentives designs focus on extrinsic and financial-oriented goals, such as completing a health screening for savings on premiums the following year. We’ve found that these goals don’t work for sustained behavior change, such as weight loss. This is where intrinsic motivation comes in.

Intrinsic motivation includes philanthropic activities, such as:

  • Participating in a health survey to help donate money to a charity
  • Getting a mammogram screening to help give a screening to a person in the community at no cost to them
  • Donating Rally coins or incentive points to a charity instead of using them to enter giveaways
  • Completing a walking challenge to donate money to a charity
  • Donating money to a charity that the employer matches

Employees feel more engaged in incentives designs when they can become active in their communities and help other people. As a result, they have a more positive opinion of their employer who supported and participated in these philanthropic efforts.

Download the “Ten Years of Health and Well-being at Work” e-book to learn more about the main topics impacting employers and employees, including behavioral health, women’s health and complex, costly conditions.

Download the “Five strategies for transforming incentive design” to learn more about how you can help your employees better engage in your incentives program.


About the author

SerxnerSeth - Full shotSeth Serxner, PhD, MPH
Chief Health Officer, Optum

Seth Serxner, a national expert on behavior change, program design and measurement, brings the breadth of his experience in academia, industry and consulting to his role as chief health officer at Optum.

His versatile skill set ensures processes and outcomes that improve health for clients in all markets. His deep knowledge of behavior change, population health and measurement allows him to visualize and deliver on program innovation.

He is a published author with over 25 years of experience in health and productivity management. He holds a master’s in public health and a doctorate from the University of California, where his research focused on health promotion and disease prevention in social ecology.


1Optum. “Ten Years of Health and Well-Being at Work” study. 2019.

3 thoughts on “Drive employee engagement with next generation incentive designs

  1. This is an excellent review thank you! It’s increasingly more important to keep a close pulse on what will attract and retain key talent in such a competitive market!

  2. As a LTC nurse, I am relieved when a patient has Optum! The NPs know their patients & respond immediately to their nurses! Optum cares!

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