Incentivizing wellness in the workplace: sticks (not carrots) send stigmatizing signals

Psychol Sci. 2013 Aug;24(8):1512-22. doi: 10.1177/0956797612474471. Epub 2013 Jun 13.

Abstract

Companies often provide incentives for employees to maintain healthy lifestyles. These incentives can take the form of either discounted premiums for healthy-weight employees ("carrot" policies) or increased premiums for overweight employees ("stick" policies). In the three studies reported here, we demonstrated that even when stick and carrot policies are formally equivalent, they do not necessarily convey the same information to employees. Stick but not carrot policies were viewed as reflecting negative company attitudes toward overweight employees (Study 1a) and were evaluated especially negatively by overweight participants (Study 1b). This was true even when overweight employees paid less money under the stick than under the carrot policy. When acting as policymakers (Study 2), participants with high levels of implicit overweight bias were especially likely to choose stick policies-often on the grounds that such policies were cost-effective-even when doing so was more costly to the company. Policymakers should realize that the framing of incentive programs can convey tacit, and sometimes stigmatizing, messages.

Keywords: attitudes; inference; meaning; policymaking.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health
  • Female
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Organizational Policy*
  • Overweight / psychology*
  • Punishment*
  • Reward*
  • Social Stigma*
  • Workplace
  • Young Adult