Monday, January 09, 2012

Employer Wellness Programs-Great Stuff?

I mentioned December that I would post my 2012 predictions for HR soon but given the seemingly endless stream of such posts flitting by over the past 3 weeks it seemed to make sense to either wait until later or choose not to follow the path of so many others. So today will not be a prediction post as so much as already been said on that topic.

Oh, except a nod to an increased focus on "social" as an HR imperative-it is an opportunity for HR professionals that I predict will become a mandatory part of their work by mid-2013.

Today will be about the trend of introducing wellness programs into organizations, a little about why this is a good idea and some cautionary thoughts about remembering that we hire employees for the competencies they bring to their roles. There are laws designed to prevent discrimination in hiring that encompass health status so are some of these cost saving measures crossing a line?

There are certainly great reasons to encourage wellness practices among employees by providing information; supporting fitness activities and ensuring that food and beverage options offered in the workplace include foods that provide important nutrients. Employees that are meeting exercise and nutrition requirements needed to maintain a reasonably healthy lifestyle miss less time due to illness, have more energy to get through busy workdays and have lower health care costs.

Offering support for health related initiatives to employees is possible for any size organization regardless of budgetary considerations as there are many excellent resources and ideas available through links such as that are free. Organizations with more room in the budget for such initiatives can design very fancy programs that make it easier for employees to take advantage.

So, this is all great stuff right? Yes, everyone can gain benefits from focusing on wellness. Is there such a thing as too much and what implications does this have for privacy concerns and how far an employer should go in getting involved in employee wellness choices?

I have read several articles over the past year that provide details of wellness programs that offer incentives for people meeting certain criteria. For example they may offer discounts on health care premiums or cash back for meeting certain wellness goals. There are also stories of employees being fired because they smoke cigarettes off the job.

This raises questions and thoughts for me as to whether some of these practices violate a persons right to keep work and their private life separate. How far is reasonable?

1) Employees are required to submit personal health information that goes beyond a normal employer/employee relationship in order to earn the incentives thus ending confidentiality.

2) In the US HIPPA rulings allow companies to set certain goals to be met that can affect ones employment-not based on their ability to do their job but based on whether they meet specific health related goals. If you Google “employee fired for smoking tobacco” you will find several articles in which employees were fired for smoking – not at the workplace-but in their private life. Smoking tobacco is a legal activity although there are more and more restrictions on where one can smoke doing so in your own home is legal. While I would love it if I could go anywhere and not encounter cigarette smoke I do not want someone to lose their job because they smoke outside of the workplace.

3) It may create instances of unintentional discrimination. Some illnesses are largely thought to be lifestyle based only-in other words if you get lung cancer or Type II Diabetes it is your own fault for smoking or not eating or exercising enough. But both those illnesses can occur in people that never smoke, exercise regularly and eat a well-balanced healthy diet. There are underlying genetic components to many illnesses and while a healthy lifestyle may keep the illness at bay for a longer period of time it is not a guarantee that a person will not be diagnosed at some point with one of these illnesses.

It is easy to understand why employers see wellness based programs as a positive for several reasons but I believe that it is important to be sure that these programs do not cross a line that creates unreasonable barriers to competent employees.

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