How Much Should You Care About Your Employees' Health?

Should you be investing in a health management program for your staff?
March 29, 2012

There really is a consulting firm for everything.

Engaged Health Solutions provides health and well-being coaching and education to employee populations. The company engages a client’s employees in their own well-being and keeps them engaged as they set and meet their goals. “Employers investing in innovative, different programs that will impact their employees' health is definitely a 21st century best practice,” says EHS communications manager Libby Lowe.  But is it effective? That is, should you invest in a similar program for your employees?

Personal development at a whole new level

Libby shares the story of one Fortune 100 client who sought the firm’s help in establishing a health management plan for its employees. More than 500 employees in three geographic areas were given access to a coach who offered long-term advice on finding physicians, managing health risks, exercising, eating a healthier diet and giving up smoking.

The culture became one in which employees compared weight loss statistics and had their coaches on speed dial in the event of a personal crisis. As a result, the company’s employees claimed they were happier and more confident at work.

In keeping with the firm’s mission, EHS has its own health-related amenities. There’s an on-site gym that employees are encouraged to use during work hours. The company stocks the kitchen with healthy lunch foods and plans employee events centered around physical activities, like 5K races and dance classes.

According to a just-released study from global professional services firm Towers Watson, employee wellness programs are on the rise, with 87 percent of survey respondents claiming to have one currently in place. However, because engaging employees to participate in such programs is an ongoing challenge, two-thirds of them are using financial incentives to encourage enrollment and commitment. Companies are also more willing to add penalties to their arsenal (used by 20 percent today), and some (10 percent) have adopted achievement standards that involve measuring weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.

The disquieting downside of health management

Rewarding employees for taking care of themselves seems to be a win all around, but is it going too far? Several employees in the Oregon State Police Officers Association and the Association of Oregon Corrections Employees think so. They recently filed a class action lawsuit against a new wellness program known as the Health Engagement Model, claiming that the plan is a violation of their civil and privacy rights. HEM requires that adults enrolled in the health plan complete a health risk assessment, and those who do not comply are charged a fee.

In addition to employee backlash, there’s the murky question of ROI.  Towers Watson asserts that while most companies have embraced the connection between employee well-being, lower healthcare costs and improved productivity, 61 percent don’t know if health management programs definitively improve ROI. For those that measure outcomes, only 14 percent indicate a small positive ROI and 15 percent a modest positive ROI.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual employer how much control it wishes to exert over employee health. Granted, obesity is an epidemic in this country, but I’m not sure it’s the employer’s place to interfere. If an employee wants to suffer from untreated heart disease and die young, is that really any of his boss’s business? And should we punish him if he declines his company’s overtures to help? What do you think? Do these interventions represent a slippery slope or a much-needed societal advance?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian