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.