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Wellness Programs: Good Investment or Corporate Waste?

WellnessIt's probably no secret to you that there's a lot of talk about reforming health insurance in the U.S., especially since President Obama took office. That issue, along with the never-ending corporate goal of increasing productivity (in part by cutting into the number of sick days employees take), has helped drive the development of corporate-based wellness programs. If you're searching for a new job, a wellness program may be an attractive perk, or a huge turnoff, depending on your perspective.

These programs can require anywhere from a little to a lot of effort and investment on the part of the employer. For one company, a wellness program might mean distributing health-related information to employees; for another, outfitting and operating an onsite gym. On the upper end of the spectrum are companies like Johnson & Johnson with long-running programs that include sophisticated disease management and prevention interventions, risk-based incentives, pedometers, office treadmills, and other health-related programs.

Workers who want to pursue a healthier lifestyle, but don't have the knowledge or the means to do so, might appreciate employer-provided information and resources, such as access to fitness equipment and healthier food choices in the workplace. This is especially true for the worker who would like to drop a few pounds or, say, stop smoking (which would also be a relief to co-workers who would otherwise have to breathe nicotine-stained air). The long-term benefits to employees are clear. In fact, a business that invests in the health and well-being of its employees might be a more attractive place to consider working when you're in the middle of a job search.

But if your view of benefits focuses on the corporate balance sheet, then it's the company that makes out better. Theoretically, healthier workers lead to better productivity, higher profitability, improved shareholder value, and the potential to save money when health insurers issue their premiums every year. Reportedly, Johnson & Johnson's health initiatives avoided an estimated $15.9 million in health care costs in 2007. Of course, few companies can afford the massive investment needed to implement that kind of program, or the time it would take to achieve a healthy return on that investment.

But is it right for employers to try and make a little extra money off your personal health? Many argue that such wellness programs, by making employees' health the employer's business, are impinging on personal liberty. They question the ethics of penalizing a workforce with higher health insurance premiums because of colleagues who are obese or smokers, but not for other things, such as unsafe sex or even having children, both "lifestyle choices" that can have direct impacts on health care costs.

One of my favorite bloggers in the career space, HR professional Laurie Ruettimann, argues that funding for corporate wellness programs is money misspent:

"… there is no wellness program in America that will lower the cost of your company's medical benefit program. If someone tells you otherwise, she is wrong. … Granted, wellness programs may offer some short-term solutions that satisfy the demands of shareholders concerned about rising labor costs. But most programs that focus on weight loss, stress reduction, and exercise cannot prove either a long-term reduction in benefit costs or an overall improvement to your workforce's health."

Further, she argues, it's not the company's place to monitor their employees' behavior. "Your mission as a leader is to generate revenue, increase profits, and create a culture of performance," she writes. "It isn't your job, or that of your HR team, to micromanage your workforce's dietary habits."

Have you taken part in a wellness program at work? Did it help or not?


RELATED LINKS

How Employers Make Room for Work-Life Balance
Will Your Sick Day Excuse Pass the BS Detector?
Office Pet Peeves: Puh-leeeeze Stop Doing That!

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