Healthy Living

Wellness in the Workplace

Employers are now paying attention to the health of their employees

Employers have instituted a variety of workplace wellness programs and initiatives in the past decade in an effort to curb costs. And an online survey from last summer showed more than 50 percent of large businesses are considering adopting some sort of wellness program. In a country with rapidly growing obesity and other lifestyle-related health issues, it makes good business sense for employers to pay attention to the health and wellness of their employees.
What Is a Workplace Wellness Program?
So what exactly is a corporate workplace wellness program? There are many different types. The most all encompassing is the fitness program. This is when employers offer employees discounts on gym memberships, rebates on fitness equipment, construct onsite gyms and organize sports teams to encourage employee fitness and camaraderie.
Another type is the nutrition-based program. This program entails offering healthy menu options in the company cafeteria and vending machines, counseling sessions and educational seminars. Many companies recruit a registered dietitian to coordinate such programs.
Smoking cessation programs are also very popular in the workplace. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employees who smoke cost companies about $1,300 a year more than employees who don’t light up. Because of this, and the fact that insurers charge smokers higher premiums, employers have a vested interest in lowering this number.
Yet another popular workplace wellness program is pregnancy and maternity wellness. These programs were designed largely because workplace discrimination due to pregnancy is illegal, but the fact remains that before, during and after childbirth, pregnant mothers cost companies money.
Traci Starks of North Carolina has benefited greatly from the wellness program at the community college where she works. “I was always a healthy eater,” she says, “but the pamphlets they have in our break rooms give me even more ideas on how to eat healthy and have more variety in my meals.”
Employee Wellness Twist: Financial Gain for Weight Loss
A new twist in employee wellness programs is to link incentives to employee behavior. In these programs, employees can get points linked to cash, points or prizes for doing things like completing health surveys, allowing their healthy habits to be monitored by their employers or entering competitive weight-loss programs. A new study from the Mayo Clinic found that this type of program does produce results.
In the study, two groups tried to lose weight. The group that received financial incentive followed the weight-loss regimen more closely and lost more weight. “The take-home message is that sustained weight loss can be achieved by financial incentives,” said Steven Driver, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic. “The financial incentives can improve results, and improve compliance and adherence.”
Penalties for Noncompliance
Perhaps the most controversial employee wellness programs are ones that penalize employees who don’t follow the plan. One such plan, already in place at a West Coast grocery chain, offers employees with chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes personal health care personnel and reduced prescription costs. But employees who opt out of the program face higher insurance deductibles to the tune of $500.
Discounts on prescriptions and a personal nurse seem like no-brainers; who wouldn’t want to save money? But less than a third of the grocery chain’;s employees have enrolled.
They aren’t alone in their aversion to what is seen as an intrusion. “I don’t want my job to know how much I drink or whether or not I eat my vegetables; it feels invasive,” says Melanie Miller,* who works for a major airline that offers financial incentives to employees who fill out surveys giving details about their health and fitness habits.
Disadvantages of Employee Wellness Programs
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) supports workplace wellness programs, both participatory (available without regard to an employee’s health status) and health-contingent (require employees to meet a health-related standard to receive a reward). ACA allows companies to choose the type of program they want to use. Some experts fear health-contingent plans may force employees to avoid going to the doctor.
Other concerns about wellness programs include:
Privacy issues. If an employee believes a program’s initial assessment will require disclosing an embarrassing illness that could open her up to discrimination, she may not participate in the program.
Lack of time. Many wellness programs require a time commitment that employees may not be able to make.
One thing is clear: Wellness programs, done right, help improve a company’s bottom line. Studies show companies with wellness programs have decreased health-care costs, less sick leave and greater worker productivity. If employees get healthy in the process, well, that’s a benefit, too.

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