Although company wellness plans benefit employee health, they can't be mandatory, and their voluntary nature hasn't caught on with everyone.
Even if you love your work, are happy with your employer, and sit in a cushy office chair at your desk all day, your job could be dangerous to your health. Scientists have found sitting much of the day, as countless working Americans do, is plain unhealthy. And if you tend to skip exercise after work and have packed on some extra pounds, your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and other ills could be mounting.
More health problems can mean higher insurance premiums for your company (and higher co-pays for you), more sick days, and less productivity on the job. So in order to make the workplace healthier, many organizations are offering onsite wellness programs, which typically include risk assessments, exercise and weight-loss programs, and smoking-cessation help. About half of U.S. employers use these wellness initiatives, according to Rand Corporation research.
But the getting-healthier-at-work idea hasn’t caught on with all employees. The Rand survey found that only about 46 percent of people who work for companies that offer wellness programs actually undergo clinical screening and complete a health risk assessment to identify who needs specific interventions, such as more exercise and weight loss.
Wellness programs do improve health — if they are run well and workers participate, according to a study by Texas A & M University, Baylor University, and MD Anderson Cancer Center researchers.
The key, the report concluded, is for comprehensive, accessible wellness programs, not just a few free passes to a gym and healthy eating information posted in a snack room. The result is healthier employees, greater productivity, and higher morale.
It can make a company’s bottom line healthier, too. For example, Johnson and Johnson’s wellness programs reduced the number of workers who smoke by more than two-thirds, lowered the number who have high blood pressure and are sedentary by more than half, and saved the company $250 million on healthcare costs over the past decade.
Creating wellness programs geared toward employees’ specific goals and needs can boost successful participation. A University of Rochester study found there were almost 9 percent fewer people who were overweight or obese after they participated in a two-year workplace weight-loss program designed with input from workers.
"Worksites are self-contained environments with established communication systems where interventions that modify food options and provide physical activity have the potential to reach large numbers of adults," said Diana Fernandez, MD, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences who headed the research. "This study shows in particular that when employees are empowered to help shape wellness programs, these programs appear to result in meaningful improvements in health."
Some companies offer financial incentives for workers who take part in wellness programs and lose weight or quit smoking. But when workers refuse to participate in company wellness programs, some have been slapped with penalties, including surcharges on medical plan costs and even firing. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has warned companies that’s against federal law.
“Employers certainly may have voluntary wellness programs — there's no dispute about that — and many see such programs as a positive development," said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC Chicago district. "But they have to actually be voluntary. They can't compel participation by imposing enormous penalties such as shifting 100 percent of the premium cost for health benefits onto the back of the employee or by just firing the employee who chooses not to participate. Having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all."
The EEOC has filed lawsuits against several companies for using penalties for non-participation in wellness programs. Honeywell International was targeted for a wellness plan that required employees to undergo biometric testing (which included blood glucose, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure testing along with a blood test for nicotine use). Employees who didn’t participate forfeited a contribution to a health savings account of up to $1,500, were assessed a $500 surcharge, and were potentially subjected to a $1,000 nicotine surcharge.
The EEOC lawsuits could have a chilling effect on the growth of workplace wellness programs, according to the National Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization that represents large employers on national health policy issues. Brian Marcotte, president and CEO, criticized the EEOC for not giving companies clear guidance on the wellness program issues.
Adding to the controversy, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act was recently introduced in Congress to protect workplace wellness programs from potential lawsuits if those programs meet the Affordable Care Act’s wellness program requirements.
Bottom line: Workplace wellness programs appear to be a good way to get healthier at work. But, for now, employers can’t make them mandatory.
November 14, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN