For many years now, wellness programs have been a fixture in work-based health benefits, and they continue to gain traction. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 77% of firms offering employee health benefits also provide at least one wellness program.
Increasingly, employers are focused on addressing lifestyle diseases that contribute to the poor health of their employees and to rising health care costs. According to a survey of large companies conducted by the National Business Coalition on Health, employers believe workers’ unhealthy lifestyle habits, including a poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise and alcohol consumption, are responsible for the rise of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
This has led to a wider adoption of workplace wellness programs to help employees retain and/or improve their health.
Some of the more common wellness programs in which employees are asked to participate are those that involve screening activities, such as health risk assessments and other biometric assessments to collect information about an employee’s height, weight and blood pressure, among other measures. In fact, according to the RAND Employer Survey, 80% of employers with a wellness program screen their employees for health risks.
Other programs ask employees to take action to address specific lifestyle behaviors known to impact health. For example, smoking cessation classes and weight loss programs that include education about nutrition and exercise are very common among companies with workplace wellness programs.
It’s common for employers to offer financial incentives, such as reduced insurance premiums, cash and gift cards to encourage workers to participate in wellness programs. In fact, the RAND Employer Survey found that nearly seven in ten companies offering workplace wellness programs use financial incentives as a strategy to encourage employees to get involved. Often, companies require employees to demonstrate that they’ve made some headway toward their health-related goals before paying-up.
The Affordable Care Act only bolsters the wellness trend by increasing the amount by which companies can incentivize employees. Starting in 2014, companies can increase the amount they reward workers for taking part in wellness programs from a maximum of 20% of the cost of health coverage, to 30%, and up to 50% for participation in anti-smoking programs.
Understandably, the growth of workplace wellness programs has raised concerns about how employee health information is being used, and whether some people are being discriminated against based on their weight or other health measures, such as blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
A recent high profile case at Penn State in which the university required employees to fill out health questionnaires or pay a penalty, caused an uproar that resulted in the university softening its position. CVS raised eyebrows earlier this year when it required employees to take a health screening that captures body weight, blood pressure and other health measures or pay a $600 annual penalty.
Employers are required to comply with HIPAA laws to protect the health-related information they collect from workers. To prevent discrimination, the Affordable Care Act requires that people with medical conditions that make it difficult for them to meet standards be given reasonable alternatives to qualify for rewards.
The jury is still out on how effective wellness programs are at changing employee health behaviors, but it’s clear that employers’ interest in using wellness programs as one way to help workers improve the state of their health and control health related costs is here to stay.