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Should Employers Play `Big Brother' with Your Health?

Picture this: On one side of the table, you have a well qualified, personable, impeccably dressed and thoroughly prepared candidate who has come in for an interview. The only apparent flaws? He's quite overweight and, tucked inside the pocket of his shirt is a pack of cigarettes.

On the other side of the table is the hiring manager for this demanding, critical job at a busy company that expects a high level of productivity from everyone, many of whom work 50 hours a week or more.

So here's your quandary: Does the hiring manager hire him even though the demands of the job might affect the candidate's health and drag down productivity? Or are his weight and smoking habit enough to make them turn to someone else who's a bit less qualified but appears to be a lot healthier?

I got to thinking about this after reading a recent news release from Hewitt Associates, a human resources services provider, amid the backdrop of national concern over obesity and the rising cost of health care in the United States. The upshot from the survey? Eighty-eight percent of 500 surveyed companies plan to invest in longer-term solutions aimed at improving the health and productivity of their workforces over the next three to five years. That's up from 63% in a similar survey conducted in 2007.

But Hewitt concludes that employees are not so convinced their employers need to get more involved: In a separate survey of 30,000 employees, only 12% believe companies have a role in helping them understand how to stay healthy. "Employers need to overcome employees' skepticism about their intended role," concludes Jim Winkler, who leads Hewitt's Health Management Consulting practice. "(The employers') messages need to shift from a cost management focus to one that helps employees understand how improving their health can benefit them, as well as the company."

That'll take a lot of work on the part of companies, but I doubt it has much chance of success. While Americans often complain that the powers that be — especially those in government — never do enough to ease any burdens they're bearing, specifically those linked with economics, they also don't want to find themselves under the watchful eye or crushing thumb of anything much larger than themselves; that is, government and business. The general attitude goes like this: "If we're overweight or addicted to cigarettes, we can handle it ourselves."

There's nothing wrong with that. After all, it's part of our American birthright to have the freedom and personal liberty to handle most of our own affairs, as opposed to having a company play "Big Brother" and force us into choices we don't want to make. That approach is more inclined to engender resentment and suspicion about the company's motives (like saving on health insurance premiums). But like our overweight, cigarette-smoking candidate above, some of us may require a little nudge, especially if it means saving some of your money — or all of your life.

Do you think it's right for an employer to force healthier lifestyles from its workers? Or encourage them? I welcome your views.

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