Financial incentives have taken on greater importance in the drive to increase employee participation in health improvement programs, according to a study by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH). The survey found that incentives provided by employers averaged a total of $430 per employee in 2010, an increase of 65% from 2009.

Employers used several types of incentives in 2010 to encourage employees to participate in health improvement programs, including cash, gift cards, and additional contributions to health savings accounts. Some employers used more punitive measures, such as reducing employer contributions to health plans if employees did not participate in any programs.

Half of all companies that provided such incentives in 2010 also offered them to dependents of employees, at an average value of $420. More employers (62%) offered incentives last year than in 2009.

Employers know that a healthier workforce is more productive in the long term, says Fidelity. Wellness programs in the past have typically had modest impact because of low participation rates, but the study indicates that incentives are starting to make a real difference in employee interest and engagement.

The majority of employers surveyed (56%) agreed that incentive-based programs had a better than expected success rate at increasing employee participation.

The study looked at the behaviors and offerings of 147 companies in various industries nationwide.