Workplace wellness is all the rage but the programs encouraging employees to live healthier lives sometimes create problems of their own.
Human beings tend to make life more complicated than it needs to be.
Human beings in the workplace tend to take that tendency and multiply it by a thousand. Often the simplest of gestures – like buying a cake for a co-worker’s birthday – turn into complex logistical nightmares. (Is one cake enough, or should we get two? Should we have gluten-free cake? Do we invite just our department or will that offend the folks in marketing? What about people whose birthdays we missed? Are they going to feel hurt?)
Wellness programs, like celebrating office birthdays, are not necessarily a piece of cake. Photo: Getty Images/Fuse
Which brings us to company wellness programs. In theory, finding ways to help workers live healthier lives is good for everyone. Employees get the benefit of improved health and the comfort of knowing their company cares about them and the company gets workers who take fewer sick days and potentially lower health care costs.
Piece of cake, right? Wrong. And please don’t eat that piece of cake, it’s not good for you.
Wellness programs are increasingly common, but they’re mired in problems. There are legal questions about whether companies can make the programs mandatory, bottom-line questions about the efficacy of encouraging workers to live healthier lives and trust issues between employees and the employers encouraging them to participate.
A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation report found that employers tend to be confident that wellness programs will save money, but “fewer than half of employers engage in formal evaluation of wellness program impacts”.
That’s a definite problem. These programs are too new to just let them run and expect results. Companies must monitor progress and adjust accordingly until an effective program is established.
Trust issues between employees and employers can arise when people are encouraged to take part in programs. Photo: Getty Images
Looking at data from companies that did study their wellness programs, Kaiser reported that “wellness programs reduced average health care costs by about $30 per member per month, but 87 per cent of savings were attributable to disease management programs that focus interventions on individuals with already-diagnosed conditions in order to reduce complications.”
Programs that promote exercise and nutrition made up only 13 per cent of the health-care savings, and behavioural changes were “small and not clinically significant”.
From the report: “Participants in wellness-weight control programs were found to lose about one pound (0.45kg) over the first three years, on average, compared to non-participants.”
Generally, these programs – both in terms of physical results and saving money – don’t seem to be living up to the expectations of employers.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing.
Fewer than half of employers engage in formal evaluation of wellness program results, according to research. Photo: Getty Images
The central idea makes sense. Most of us need help or motivation to lose weight or get to the gym more often. If companies can offer a financial incentive, why not?
Problems arise, it seems, when workers are required to participate.
Flambeau, a plastics company in Wisconsin, started a wellness program that allowed employees who took part in it to save some money on their health-care plan. But then the company made participation mandatory.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Flambeau, saying that requiring workers to undergo medical exams and reveal health data violates protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the end of last year, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled in favour of the company, saying in part that the data were only used to classify risks and calculate future insurance costs.
There have been other similar lawsuits, and there will undoubtedly be more as employers and employees wrestle with privacy issues and concerns about corporate overreach.
I certainly don’t have solutions for all these problems, but I do have a suggestion: communicate.
There is clearly a breakdown here, with employers charging head-first into wellness programs that haven’t been sensibly evaluated and employees not fully understanding why the programs are necessary, how their personal data might be used and what laws protect them from potential harm.
Employers need to know what might happen to their health data if they participate in programs. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Perhaps I’m naive, but I approach issues like this from a non-conspiratorial standpoint. I don’t assume my company is out to get me and, if it was out to get me, I don’t think the nation’s laws are so feckless that I wouldn’t be protected.
If you start off believing that any new program your company proposes is purely self-serving or potentially malicious, then the best thing you can do for your health is find another job. That’s an unhealthy state of mind.
Of course trust is earned and, on that front, transparency is a company’s best friend.
Managers shouldn’t take a “let’s not bog our workers down in the details” approach to wellness programs. Spell it out – all of it.
“These wellness programs aren’t likely to go away. At their heart, they make too much sense and the world needs ways to drive down health-care costs.”
Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s the money you’re going to save, here’s the money we’re going to save and here’s why all that money-saving is good for all of us.
Here’s why we need you to fill out health surveys or get medical exams. This is what will happen with that data. These are the laws in place that protect you from that data being used against you in any way. Here’s what we have done to make sure those laws aren’t violated.
Companies love to take pragmatic programs like this and dress them up in peppy buzzwords and then market them to employees. That has a tendency to insult the intelligence of most workers. Exposition is better than a sales pitch.
These wellness programs aren’t likely to go away. At their heart, they make too much sense and the world needs ways to drive down health-care costs.
But workers shouldn’t have to just smile and accept the programs as the new normal. They deserve complete information and a chance for their voices to be heard. Any program that’s out there can always be improved.
The key to this is communication, something we humans often overlook while making things more complicated than they need to be.
- Rex Huppke writes about the workplace for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter
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