Corporate Wellness Programs: Carrots, Sticks, and Productivity

reaching for wellness-program carrotA recent New York Times article on corporate wellness programs, “The Sticks and Carrots of Employee Wellness Programs,” brings up some interesting issues around cost-shifting and privacy breaches. And this discussion has got me wondering about whether companies and employees should even be in the health-care administration business.

Is Your Employer Trying to Get You to Pay More of Your Health-Care Costs?

Federal law requires that health assessment screenings and other wellness programs be voluntary. Opting in to these programs looks at first like a win-win scenario: employees enjoy better health, and employers reduce health-care costs.

But is it really opt-in when your employer insists that you provide your weight, your cholesterol levels, and other personal medical details in order to avoid a $2,250 penalty? That was the deal presented recently to employees at Honeywell, and similar scenarios play out every day in corporate America.

This dynamic can also explain why employers keep some programs in place even if they aren’t generating actual health benefits. If the program still helps to move costs from the employer to you then your company’s bottom line looks better.

How Well Do Third-Party Wellness Providers Protect Your Privacy?

Few employers have the resources to create and administer health-screening and similar programs themselves. So they typically outsource the management of these programs to vendors in the $7.2 billion corporate wellness services industry.

This situation can water down the privacy protection that HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and other federal laws and regulations give you.

For example, if an outside wellness-program vendor gathers information about you, you are ostensibly protected. Your personal data can be shared and used only when aggregated with a bunch of other anonymous data. However, you can easily forgo those protections when you “voluntarily” agree to the vendor’s privacy policy and other terms of service.

So stay on your toes when you participate in these programs. The Times suggests a “caveat emptor” approach: make sure you understand what you’re signing up for and whether you’re giving up any privacy rights when you sign up at a wellness-program vendor’s website.

Is Productivity Suffering Because of Our Health-Care Practices?

When I shared the Times article on Facebook a friend questioned whether businesses should even be involved in health-care and wellness-program administration. “It’s just horribly inefficient, and wrought with all kinds of twisted conflicts of interests, even for the best-intentioned employers.”

I also wonder about the impact of employer-administered programs on individual productivity. As I write this post, I can overhear a conversation at my co-working office between a young man and a customer-service rep at his the new insurance company his employer has selected. In the 45 minutes or so that it’s taken me to draft this post he has done nothing productive.

There’s not a lot we can do in this forum to address the big productivity issue of health-insurance companies offloading work onto your company’s HR department. But I hope that some understanding of this situation can at least help you keep your personal productivity in the office on track, and help you protect your privacy.

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