The problem with employee wellness programs | Workable
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The problem with employee wellness programs

Rohma Abbas |

Employee wellness programs are morally questionable and misguided. Companies usually turn to them to reduce health costs, but they’re often ineffective, poorly crafted and discriminatory. Instead, companies should focus on less intrusive ways to encourage wellness, and let employees manage their own health.

Perhaps the biggest problem with corporate wellness programs is the visceral reaction most people have to being subjected to a mild form of eugenics. The very idea of requiring employees to meet health benchmarks is a bit sick, and seems gimmicky at companies that need to address toxic workplace culture. Employee monitoring is not a new concept, but tracking employee health, and trying to improve it for corporate gain, is an overstep.

What are employee wellness programs?

Employee wellness programs are initiatives companies use to try to improve the health of their workers. These programs differ widely across companies, but they all aim to reduce health-related absenteeism (e.g. sick days) and increase employee productivity. These policies also used to prevent employees from developing chronic illnesses, or help ill employees manage their health.

Eighty-one percent of large employers (with 200 or more workers) and 49 percent of small employers offer some type of wellness promotion programs. Companies often contract with external wellness vendors to offer these initiatives.

Workplace health and wellness promotion incentives and programs include:

  • Online health risk assessments
  • Weight loss programs and competitions (that use FitBits and other wearable technology, but not necessarily)
  • Biometric screenings (health screenings that measure blood pressure, weight, height, body mass index)
  • Fitness classes
  • Gym membership reimbursements
  • Tobacco cessation programs
  • Flu shots and health clinics
  • Chronic disease management and prevention
  • Health and lifestyle coaching

The problems with employee wellness programs

On the surface, these programs seem like win-wins, but crafting a workplace health and wellness program means defining health and wellness. When companies do that, they open the door to discriminatory health judgments. (For example, a tobacco cessation program will target smokers, and a FitBit competition can alienate non-walkers). These decisions can negatively affect employee engagement. A HR department’s time would be better spent improving their benefits package instead of implementing a one-size-fits-all program that fits no one.

Here are some specific problems with wellness programs:

They use faulty metrics to measure health

Traditional programs use metrics that are not always accurate. For example, biometric screenings are a popular feature of most wellness programs and include calculating a person’s body mass index (BMI) to determine obesity, but research suggests that BMI is an ineffective measurement of healthy weight.

They are all stick, no carrot

Masked as “perks,” wellness programs are often a way to shift health costs onto employees. Employers often promote these programs and their financial incentives as optional, but in some workplaces, there’s a non-participation fee: higher health premiums. Penalizing employees who don’t sign up for a wellness program sends the wrong message to your workers.

They compromise health privacy

Corporate wellness programs bring health privacy concerns to the forefront. Under new U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, companies can require employees to share health data to obtain a financial incentive as part of a program – or pay higher premiums. This heavy-handed approach puts older workers who might have serious medical conditions in an uncomfortable position.

No one’s sure they work

Wellness program success is all over the map. Some cases show they don’t reduce health costs or improve employees’ health. Half of employers who offer wellness programs don’t formally evaluate them, according to an employer survey by the RAND Corporation. Most employers said their programs reduced health costs, absenteeism and health-related productivity losses, but only 2 percent could provide actual savings estimates. Also, often these programs aren’t communicated effectively: most nonparticipating employees would consider joining their company’s wellness program if they knew more about it.

How to create a wellness culture at your company

Successful companies attract and retain talented employees. To join their ranks, engineer your company’s perks and benefits to keep your employees happy and productive by:

1. Offering a meaningful benefits packages

Spend your time and money fashioning benefits that will be useful to your employees. For inspiration, take a look at Glassdoor’s list of Top 20 Employee Benefits & Perks, compiled by employees. Here are some standout benefits:

  • Spotify covers costs for egg freezing and fertility assistance
  • Airbnb offers a $2,000 stipend for its employees to travel and stay in an Airbnb anywhere in the world
  • Accenture covers gender reassignment surgery as part of its commitment to LGBTQ and diversity

2. Encouraging flexible working hours

A good work from home policy communicates that you care about your employees’ personal lives and want to give them flexibility to manage their time. At Chinese travel website Ctrip, a work-from-home experiment not only led to greater productivity (call volume increased by 13.5 percent among the company’s call center workers) but workers used less sick time and reported they were happier and less likely to quit.

3. Promoting real wellness perks

You can nurture a wellness culture at your company without enforcing it. Hootsuite’s CEO, Ryan Holmes, for example, encourages his employees to exercise at work by offering gym facilities, showers and changing rooms. Employers who can’t afford those amenities can still build a wellness culture by offering other perks, like:

  • Bike racks
  • Paid fitness breaks
  • Healthy snacks
  • Standing desks and exercise balls

Workplace wellness programs seem to make sense when technology makes tracking health easy. But there’s a fine line between easy and intrusive. Employees are people, not statistics, and companies should leave health monitoring to individuals.

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