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AP Photo/Manish Swarup

What if your employer paid you to exercise and sleep? Inside one startup’s wellness experiment

By Leah Fessler

The online mattress-maker Casper specializes in selling customers a good night’s sleep. But Casper employees can actually make money in exchange for getting some shuteye. 

Along with a growing number of companies, Casper is looking for ways to incentivize employees to exercise and get enough rest. But rather than offering a traditional gym discount, Casper gives employees cash rewards for working out—wherever, and however, they please. The goal is to promote healthy habits among employees, and drive down health-insurance costs in the bargain. But the program also raises an important question: How much information should employers have about what workers do when they’re off the clock? 

Casper co-founder Neil Parikh explains that employees track their exercise and sleep via IncentFit, a fitness-reward app designed for company use. They use the app to “check in” at their desired gym or fitness facility. (Location-based algorithms ensure that you really are at SoulCycle, not on your couch.) IncentFit also rewards running, walking, or biking milage tracked via fitness apps or devices like Fitbit.

Payment is distributed monthly: $20 per fitness facility/class visit, $0.20 per mile walked, $4 per mile ran, $2 per mile biked, and $50 per race completed. The startup has also extended the benefit to rest, encouraging employees to track nightly sleep via IncentFit for $2 per night. 

Through IncentFit, Casper employees can earn a monthly maximum of $130 for exercise and $60 for sleep—a $190 cap set by Casper’s leadership. As context, in New York City, this is enough to fully reimburse an all-access pass at gyms like Crunch ($120 per month) and Planet Fitness ($20 per month), four SoulCycle classes, or six Pure Barre classes. And, if you sweat it out enough, you could make a serious dent in upper-crust gym Equinox’s $240 all-access monthly fee.

“When a startup comes to us and says, ‘Hey, we have a cool product to help your employees’ health,’ we’re almost always the first in the industry to pilot,” says Parikh, who adopted Incentfit shortly before Casper launched in 2014. Today, more than half of the company takes advantage of the fitness and sleep rewards, and in the past month, 69% of employees registered with Incentfit earned money.

Casper is not alone in offering such benefits. A handful of health insurance companies now offer financial discounts for hitting exercise goals, which they usually market to employers (not individual customers), incentivizing them to encourage their team to wear Fitbits or Jawbones. At Clif Bar & Company, employees are encouraged to workout for 30 minutes a day on the company’s dime. If they skip the 30-minute break and put in nine-hour days for nine work days in a row, they can instead take a full paid tenth day off—which they’re encouraged to spend actively. Hootsuite, the social media managing platform, also suggests employees block out some paid work time for exercising at their in-office gym and yoga studio. And a 2013 study in the journal Translational Behavior Medicine found that when given the choice between paying 20% more for health insurance or exercising more, the majority of people picked fitness.

The Incentfit program is “about motivating people to be healthier,” says Parikh. “We’re always trying to find ways to quantify and motivate people to take positive social behaviors. We can provide a gym membership, but so often it just sits on the shelf. Financial rewards actually motivate behavior.”

While studies have yet to determine whether fitness trackers change inactive people’s long-term habits, research does show that trackers provide people with accountability and motivation. But critics warn there are risks to allowing companies to monitor their employees’ activities.

“Helping people become more self-aware about fitness and wellness habits is very brand consistent for Casper, given their focus on sleep, and very much tethered to how the modern employer thinks holistically about healthy employees,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done“But as an employee, I’d be very nervous about this benefit, particularly who has access to sensitive exercise and sleep data.”

It’s impossible to prevent implicit bias from slipping into our decision making, Davey says. So if an employer’s bias is that people who work out are more driven, more responsible, or healthier, the company may start to think that regular gym-goers are more suitable for management or have better stamina. If an employee is exercising a lot and sleeping little, implicit bias may lead an employer to view the worker as obsessive, less focused on work, or—especially at a sleep-focused company—harming their own productivity.

If the same HR person or manager with access to your exercise and sleep intensity is also evaluating your merit and eligibility for a promotion, such implicit biases will almost certainly be at play, says Davey. This ought to worry both employees and leaders who care about equality. At Casper, management does not have access to individual employees’ exercise and sleep data—only employees can see their own records. However, management can see how much each employee is paid through the Incentfit program monthly, which is indicative how much each employee hit the gym.

Even if employers aren’t monitoring workers’ data, there are other downsides to such programs. At Casper, Parikh says that the exercise benefit has inspired many employees to work out together—a great way to build camaraderie. But for those who physically cannot exercise, don’t want to exercise, or simply aren’t at the fitness level of their peers, this phenomenon is a breeding ground for bias, says Davey. If you keep passing on yoga after work, your peers may start to think of you as lazy, unhealthy, unfriendly, or unmotivated.

Parikh, however, emphasizes that the program is entirely optional. ”We don’t force anyone to participate,” he says, “it’s about individual empowerment, and that has to come from within.”

In the long run, the benefit will likely incentivize those who already work out frequently and have little impact on the behavior of those who don’t, according to Davey. That means it’s better for a company’s brand than for lowering health-insurance costs or increasing productivity.

She suggests that companies would do better to think holistically about their employees’ health—and to avoid tracking it. The best option is to pull healthy activities into the office, during the work day. Activities like meditation, group walks, or stress-management during lunch, coupled with leaders encouraging employees to take a break and participate, are far more likely to spark positive peer pressure and engage those who opt out of post-work wellness, she says. Plus, getting active during the work day speaks volumes about management’s belief that a healthy mind and body is just as (if not more) important as your 5 pm deadline.

“You’re never going to have perfect exercise or wellness policy,” says Davey, “and Casper deserves praise for encouraging values and behaviors they believe in.” But it’s worth sweating over the details of even the most alluring benefits.