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Wellness: Big benefit or Big Brother?

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in Employee Benefits Program,Human Resources

For several years, proponents have touted wellness programs’ success in lowering health care costs, decreasing absenteeism and raising employee morale. But those laudable goals haven’t insulated wellness programs from controversy.

Critics cite cases in which employees have been strong-armed or shamed into participating in wellness programs against their will. They also worry about medical privacy and whether the data that employers obtain for wellness purposes could be used against employees in firing or promotion decisions.

Still many companies have embraced the wellness concept, with 90% of large employers and 73% of small employers offering the programs.

Are wellness programs cost-effective? Studies offer mixed results. Some have found benefits as high as $3.27 for every dollar spent. Others suggest the returns are much lower.

Additional findings: Participation incentives below $50 have little effect. Smoking cessation programs provide the most benefit.

Several laws offer employee protections, including the ADA and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The Affordable Care Act health care reform law actively encourages voluntary wellness programs as a way of reducing health care costs.

Many wellness programs offer incentives to encourage participation. Employers must adjust wellness rewards to accommodate employee disabilities lest they violate the ADA. Genetic information that employers might obtain when collecting the biometric data most wellness programs require may not be used to discriminate against employees in any way.

A recent Rand Corp. study of wellness programs provided these tips to encourage employee participation:

  • Clearly explain to employees how your wellness program works.
  • Make wellness activities convenient and accessible for all employees.
  • Urge senior leaders to make wellness an organizational priority.
  • Work with your health plan to leverage existing wellness resources.
  • Solicit employee feedback on wellness programs to continuously improve their quality.

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