Pros & Cons of Workplace Wellness Programs

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How much is too much when it comes to your health and privacy? 

That’s the big question up for debate right now, and at the center of it all are workplace wellness programs.  On paper, these programs seem like a no brainer for both employers and their employees – an opportunity to keep health costs down while encouraging a healthy lifestyle.  What’s not to like?  But what about those employees who don’t, or simply can’t, participate?  There is cause for concern when it comes to alienating employees who don’t, or can’t, participate in them, while others have raised concerns that they can sometimes border on an invasion of privacy.  So, as employers, where do we draw the line?

Let’s explore some of the pros and cons of workplace wellness programs:

The Good News:

-       Launching and maintaining employee wellness programs can save employers money on health care costs, worker’s compensation and disability claims.

-       Some wellness programs will directly improve working conditions, leading to increased loyalty and an improvement in employee morale and team building.

-       Employee wellness programs can help companies attract and retain talent in the workplace.

-       A healthy work place can lead to an overall healthier lifestyle (e.g. cutting back on smoking and lowering blood pressure).

-       Onsite fitness gets employees moving around more, contributing to less sedentary lifestyles.

-       Wellness programs and regular fitness can boost productivity, reduce employee absences and lead to fewer disability claims.

The Bad News:

-       Running a wellness program can prove to be costly, and often does not provide a direct return on the investment for the employer. (However, lowering future premiums could be considered ROI).

-       Workplace wellness programs are supposed to be voluntary, as stated by the Affordable Care Act, but many employees feel “strong-armed” into them because of high financial participation incentives and rewards, and discriminated against if they don’t participate.

-       Employees with chronic, pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure may not be able to participate, and may feel discriminated against as a result.

-       The need to acquire health data on an employee prior to doing physical exercise feels to many employees like an invasion of privacy.

At the center of the debate is the level of incentives that employers may offer to participate in these programs, and the requirement of the employee to provide personal health information.  Some incentives – financial, gift cards, merchandise offers – are so high and enticing that many employees tend to feel like they have no choice but to participate.  But that participation may require them to give out their personal health data to employers, thus crossing the line between the employee’s public and private life.  Is it too much?  Is there a balance somewhere?

In an effort to control the wellness incentives, in 2016 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) implemented a 30% ceiling that states employers cannot offer incentive programs that exceed that percentage on health benefits.   

The Cleveland Clinic, for example, currently offers a broad workplace wellness program that is described as a “population health program.”  Their program offers participants a 30% savings on their insurance premiums – representing a savings of almost $1,443 a year.  That requires full participation, however – losing weight, maintaining good blood sugar levels and committing to the gym at least 10 times a month.  The Cleveland Clinic leadership team feels their program is successful because of the benefit discount they can offer, but this is where the debate enters – does it start to feel like it is not voluntary anymore because the incentives are so enticing?  Some feel they can’t turn the opportunity down.

The AARP went so far as to challenge that EEOC 30% ceiling in court, claiming that employees may feel like they must participate in these programs and release their health information to their employer because the incentives are so great. By not participating, they could lose out on a significant amount of money.

D.C. Circuit Court Judge John Bates also ruled that the EEOC gave no reason or proof to support the 30% ceiling and ordered it to end as of Jan. 1, 2019. 

This new ruling is now shaking up work wellness programs.  Unsure whether to drop incentives and penalties or keep what they have, employers are redeveloping their wellness programs with no concrete rules to follow.

Where the debate goes next remains to be seen and may differ from business to business. Will employers stop offering wellness programs?  Will the EEOC rule to keep the ceiling at 30%?  The final verdict could result in employers offering a variety of smaller wellness-based incentives and giving employees multiple choices when it comes to how much health data to release to the employer and how to do it.  Less “strong-arming” and more balance.

In the quest to achieve balance and a healthy lifestyle, the challenge in moving forward with these workplace wellness programs is finding a healthy equilibrium between creating an effective program, while maintaining privacy, stopping discrimination and being cost effective.  It can indeed be done, but these waters should be navigated thoughtfully.