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Employee Wellness Is Ill-Conceived

Businesses should stop trying to meddle in their workers’ health and fitness habits. Pro or con?

Pro: Haranguing Workers Isn’t Healthy

Cutting-edge employers are climbing over one another to help employees lose weight, quit smoking, stop drinking, get buff, and turn into all-around better human beings. Welcome to the wholesome workplace of the 21st century. Right? Wrong. How’s this for criticism?:

“The payment of good wages does not give an employer the authority to seek to regulate the internal family affairs of any man,” rants a newspaper editorial. Think the editor is complaining about something like The Scotts Company’s refusal to employ people who smoke) (BusinessWeek, 2/27/07), at home, on weekends, out of the workplace, all because Scotts’ CEO, a reformed two-pack-a-day smoker, thinks he knows what is best for his people? Wrong again. That was an editorial in the St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger, complaining about the evil twin to Henry Ford’s $5 a day wage: Ford (F) production employees had to meet the company’s decent living standards. The company’s Sociological Dept.’s 150 inspectors made surprise visits to employees’ homes looking for signs of drinking, gambling, buying on credit, a dirty home, or an unwholesome diet.

The justification for this intrusion, Ford said, was that “we want to make men in this factory as well as automobiles.” The Sociological Dept. was abolished in 1920. Now, 88 years after Henry Ford was forced to butt out of his employees’ lives and simply pay them for their labors, employers who think they know what is best for their employees are walking down the same path. Some, at least for now, are helping employees to “voluntarily” clean up their acts.

Others make it mandatory: Quit smoking or lose your job. Lose weight or lose your medical insurance. If employers really want to help their employees live better lives, let the workers pocket the millions spent on corporate gymnasiums, social programs, and other paternalistic efforts. We stand at the peak of a slippery slope. How long before “voluntary” programs become mandatory? How long before “we don’t hire smokers” becomes “we don’t hire people whose spouses smoke, fat people, couch potatoes, skydivers, or people with high cholesterol”?

Only one type of employer got to control workers’ private lives, but the Civil War put an end to slavery.

Con: Wellness Benefits Everyone

Workplace wellness programs have the potential to reduce medical care costs for both employers and employees and typically provide employees with additional benefits such as access to health education programs, medical screenings, and discounts on health services. Such programs should not be considered “meddling” in employee health but rather a wise and potentially mutually beneficial course of action.

Studies support that employers who institute wellness programs may also benefit from reduced absenteeism, supporting the notion that such programs benefit employee health. Much of the debate over these programs stems from the use of financial penalties for employees who make perceived “unhealthy” lifestyle choices, such as smoking. The legality of such tactics should be carefully examined under federal and state laws before implementing such a program. However, participation-based models have already cleared a major legal hurdle, the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) Nondiscrimination Rules.

In fact, employers may offer employees a health care discount conditioned on participation in an employee wellness program without being subject to the HIPAA Nondiscrimination Rules. Wellness initiatives not subject to these rules include reducing the health care contributions of an employee (including those for his or her enrolled dependents) based on his or her participation in a diagnostic testing program, a smoking cessation initiative, or health education seminars. In other circumstances, an employer may offer a discount based on a HIPAA “health factor” (which includes items such as an individual’s health status or medical condition) if it satisfies the HIPAA nondiscrimination requirements.

Employers certainly do not “meddle” in employees’ health by sponsoring wellness programs. When implemented within the proper legal framework, these programs may mutually benefit employees and employers, providing both financial and emotional incentives for employees to control their health, while also serving as a cost reduction tool for employees and the organizations for which they work.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments


There is certainly a case to be made for not managing employees like a parent would manage children. But the pro argument here is filled with hyperbole.

Scotts may not want to employ people who smoke because its CEO got the wellness religion, but it's a long way away from the authoritarian things Ford has done in the past. In fact, it's not even comparable, because we need to consider the culture of the time. When the Sociological Department existed, the ideas of "making good men" and other ideologies we find so unsavory today (like racism, fascism, eugenics, and isms like them) were making their way around the world and acquiring disturbing numbers of followers.

But in the wake of WW II and the horrors brought on by these disturbing fashions of the day, our culture is very different. The comparison to slavery was also far too much. Slaves had no choice who they worked for. Employees have a choice to quit a company with a mandatory wellness program and work at another company better suited to their desires. A company can't afford to mandate ridiculous wellness standards of its employees and their relatives and friends and expect to retain many workers.

The problem is that Americans do need to have someone looking out for their wellness. With life expectancies falling thanks in no small part to our terrible health habits, it makes sense that those who bear the brunt of out health care costs and the problems that chronic poor health presents would want to do something about it.


Scotts' program is over the top when you compare it to most employer-sponsored wellness programs. When done right, voluntary wellness programs that are branded appropriately and seen positively by employees can get 60% participation. What's more in an increasingly competitive global market, with the American price of health care coverage outpacing both wages and inflation (by a lot), employers are going to have to choose to either get with the (wellness) program or have less to invest back into the company.

And if that means losing out to the competition and closing down, then what good does it do the employees who ultimately lose their jobs?


Human nature, being what it is, it is all about the money and control.

There was a time when employees benefited from having health insurance. It covered doctor visits anytime, anyplace. The doctors made the decisions for the type of treatment the patient needed. Then, enter PPOs, and the HMOs and now most recently the EPOs, all created to save money. It has saved nothing. It simply passed the cost on to the consumer. Today, with all the increased deductibles, the increased out of pocket expenses, the increased cost of the premiums monthly, with separate deductibles for monthly maintenance medications, the consumer is paying approximately $5,000 a year and getting the shaft. The wellness programs are out there to protect the insurance companies, not the consumer. The employers and the insurance companies do not want to cover the cost of employee benefits. They want to know in advance what this person or that person may or may not cost them. Then they can raise the rates and pass them on to the consumer. So, here is this wellness package that costs the company money to include, and folks who are healthy are going to visits, just to get their wellness visits in, because it is now a covered expense. People are people--they are going to eat what they want, smoke what they want, and exercise when they want, and mandatory wellness/get fit programs, are not going to stop that. Mandatory wellness programs are not going to help the person who has contracted AIDS because of a blood transfusion, they will not help the hemophiliac or someone with Parkinson's, or someone with a family history of cancer. They only serve to find the diseases sooner, adding stress to the mix of medical problems. With all of today's advances in medicine, and I am a firm believer in the power of good medicine, nothing can stop the diabetic who has eaten correctly all if there is a family history of such, or the patient who has heart problems or the one who has renal problems. Once these types of problems begin, they only progress. They can be slowed down, only to have another problem take their place, from the medications used to treat the first problem. People are going to be overweight, they are going to smoke, they are going to drink, they are going to do what they are comfortable with, and if an employer does not want these folks working for them, they will move on, because the USA is a free country.

Everyone can benefit from a healthy diet, but not everyone can afford one. It is expensive to eat correctly all the time. The public is not stupid; people are aware of most of the consequences of their actions, but we are still free. Mandatory weight loss or quit-smoking programs or health education programs will not make the problems facing the employers or the insurance companies go away. They are not conclusive enough. Problems intertwine, which is why it's sometimes difficult to make a correct diagnosis. Doctors go to school for years, and they still do not know everything. Wellness programs that demand from the consumer will add additional expenses for employers and insurance companies as well as the consumer. Even though the medical community has come so far with its advances, insurance companies and employers are looking at that bottom line dollar and lacking the human touch. People are people.

If insurance companies and employers want to have a preventative maintenance program at their own expense, I could understand that--educating people to care for themselves before their problems start. Wellness programs are very ill-conceived. Mandating how someone must look or live only serves to make it difficult for consumers or employers to keep affordable insurance, forcing consumers to work for companies that do not offer or cannot afford insurance--and add to the growing population of the uninsured.


Oh blah, blah, blah. Mr. Schwartz has totally missed the boat on this one. And his comparison with slavery is so over the top. Sixty percent of health care costs of employees come from the home. If corporations want to make their employees healthier by helping to make the families healthier, so be it. He obviously ignores the fact that our health care (I mean, sick care) system is on the brink of collapse and corporations can't keep up with the rising costs. This has nothing to do with the "wellness religion." Mr. Schwartz obviously wants to ignore the significant savings corporations have realized through corporate wellness programs, which obviously affect our sick-care system's health as well. I'm sick and tired of paying for glutinous, lazy people, and I have no problem with corporations taking the lead on this and forcing wellness on their employee populations. Someone has to do it.


While I do agree there are extremes, as an employer, if I am investing money and the future of my business in an employee through training, pension plans, experiential learning, maintaining contracts, etc., you can be damn sure I will protect my investment--through incentives, performance contracts, and otherwise.

John K

My employer plans to go to a smoke-free campus. I may find another job rather than deal with the hassle and stress of having to go off-site to smoke. What is my value to the company? What will you regulate next--coffee, tea, what I eat during my lunch?

Health Discrimination

What is to stop an employer from firing me or not hiring me because of a medical condition? Against the law, you say? That is true today. However, if the medication I take causes weight gain or high blood pressure, or just plain puts me "at risk," I could find myself in the bad group. What's to stop this slippery slope from hiring only "well" people, because all others are a drain on a company's insurance?


When your employer believes he has the right to tell you what you can do in your off-duty time, ask him how much he is paying you to be on standby.

carson grey

I already have a problem with that fact that my health care premiums are so high because of all the people who won't get off the couch, won't eat a vegetable, and smoke six packs a day. Go kill yourself if you want to, but don't go screaming and crying when potential employers see the fact that you can't fit into a chair as a major red flag to hiring you.


It seems that some employers would rather have robots working for them. Just plug them in for the next 8- (9-,10-, or whatever) hour shift and everything is fine. No cost, just gains. But luckily we are all different--flaws, habits, and so on. I'm not against wellness programs, because we would benefit from them, but puuuh-lease voluntarily, not mandatory. What's the benefit if you are forcing somebody to do something he or she doesn't want to do? What would you have? A damn unhappy employee.

Is it always necessary to use the newest---"best"---and then most expensive methods to cure people? Some old ones worked pretty well over the years, and so insurance companies could cut their costs and thus ease the burden of the workers to pay for. Here in Europe we are moving toward what we call a "glass-patient"--if you don't agree to what we want you to do, then we will increase the health-insurance rate you are paying.

I don't want to be bullied around by someone who just has in mind the costs and how much he can pocket if these decrease. Are we still living in a free world? As it seems, unfortunately, not anymore.

E G Bowles

Leave me, my body, my habits, my vices, alone until they affect my performance. After that warn me, and if I don't listen, let me go.

Until I stop making you money and making your customers happy, leave me, my body, my habits, my vices alone.


Leave me alone, but give me choices like a treadmill desk at work. That would solve a lot of problems. I would be more productive and much healthier, too. I have my eye on a TrekDesk.


I work for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, and we have recently undergone the change to a smoke-free campus. It doesn't affect me, because I am not a smoker, but it certainly irritated the folks from the old "Smoke Hut" out back. People are allowed to smoke on their lunch breaks if they leave the property. They cannot, however, smoke on their breaks since company policy dictates that you can't leave the property on your breaks. I can't fault them for wanting to save money...that's the main purpose of a business. Most of you Internet surfing, Tetris-playing, water-cooler lingering moochers are getting paid for more hours than you actually work anyway, so quit whining when they want to cut costs in any way.

Is it the company's right to tell you that there is no smoking on their property? Yes

Can the company go as far as to tell you that you are no longer able to bring food bought outside the company break room, healthy or not, to the workplace? Yes.

Are companies required to put junk food in their vending machines? No.

Can they choose to stock the machine with health foods only? Yes.

If the company puts it in your job description before they hire you, can the company make it a requirement that you exercise for a minimum amount of time in a company gym? Yes. (And yes, before you argue, they can…look up requirements for being employed by the United States Military as proof—you're not even supposed to get a tattoo in the military even though a lot do, and it is rarely enforced).

All of these things are no different from a company requiring you to follow a strict dress code. If you feel it is, then tell me how: It's their company, their rules. If it isn't illegal then they have every right to ask what they want while you are on the clock. If you are a salary worker, you are always on the clock, so management beware. If you don’t like it, then leave. Nothing is keeping you there but a halfway decent paycheck that you always gripe about anyway.

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