Are Corporate Wellness Programs in for a Counter Rebellion?

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Are Corporate Wellness Programs in for a Counter Rebellion?

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The office-turned gymWe’ve previously written about whether employers will stop hiring overweight employees or the likelihood of employees bringing “sitting lawsuits” against their companies.” Since then, there’s been no shortage of media coverage about the inherent conflict between incentivizing employees to live a healthier lifestyle and discriminating against those who feel that it’s their protected right to choose not to submit to medical assessments, see the doctor, join a gym, or wear a FitBit all day.
Two stories by NPR’s Yuki Noguchi caught our eye in particular, and are well worth a read if you’re interested in this topic: “When Are Employee Wellness Incentives No Longer Voluntary?” and “Targeting Overweight Workers With Wellness Programs Can Backfire.” Noguchi reports that the courts have already been dealing with lawsuits by employees and regulators who feel that certain employers have been getting too aggressive with their wellness program incentives. It has even gotten to the point where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is considering regulations that would limit the maximum incentives for participation in a corporate wellness program to 30% of the total cost of health care coverage.

It’s not too surprising to us that the focus of most every article on this topic is on obesity, diabetes and all the knock-on chronic health issues that follow from the fact that, in most large organizations, more than half of the employee population is already overweight or obese. And looking at the health of the average college student entering the workforce, this trend is only going to get worse in coming years.

There’s much more to ‘sitting disease’ than obesity

What these articles often seem to miss is that ‘sitting disease’ goes beyond obesity in affecting health care costs and employee productivity. There are over 100 million sedentary office workers in the US. Sentencing them to the chair all day also results in back pain and other ergonomic injuries, fatigue, circulatory issues, and reduced focus and concentration – regardless of whether or not the employee is overweight. Many a weekend marathoner will tell you sitting all day is what’s killing their backs. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, 90% of SitLess.com‘s customers who contact them in researching a standing desk or treadmill desk are not even overweight.

Waving free dollars in front of employees in order to get them to change their dietary habits or join a gym is one thing, but as Noguchi documents, there’s clearly a risk in creating any incentive system that can be perceived as discriminating against unhealthy employees or job candidates. Several articles have reported on employees forming “wellness rebellions” against their employers, feeling that their evaluation surveys and incentive programs go too far, invading their privacy and penalizing them for their lifestyle habits or genetic predisposition.

So what’s a mother (corporation) to do?

Wellness ROIThe good news is that many progressive employers have already recognized the flaws of a work culture that inflicts sitting disease onto their employees. They’ve found that investing in sit-stand desks, treadmill desks and adjustable-height conference tables is a much better way to spend those corporate wellness funds. Here in Washington State, for example, the Department of Labor has already made it possible for any employee to request a standing desk, without a doctor’s note. Unfortunately, the vast majority of private employers, much less government agencies, are still in the dark ages on this one. At best, they’ll provide an accommodation only with a doctor’s note.

The subtle point that lagging employers may be missing is that their wellness funds can go a lot farther by allowing employees to request standing desks or treadmill desks than to give financial incentives for submitting to anything that smacks of medical screening or privacy violations. The notion that a doctor’s note should be required for an accommodation, in this day and age, is frankly ludicrous. We now have a very good understanding of the causes and effects of sitting disease, as well as its impact on sedentary employees of all ages and all fitness levels. If what employers seek is more productive employees who miss fewer days of work and see fewer doctors, giving them a reprieve from their chair sentences is just good common sense.

The smart money is on direct investments, not incentives

Whenever we are asked to consult on how to integrate standing desks, treadmill desks and sit-stand conference tables into corporate wellness programs, our general advice is straightforward: spend less on common wellness program features that are infrequently used, such as gym memberships, and shift those monies instead to investment in active office furniture, for an immediate improvement in both health and financial ROI.

Continuing to increase financial incentives raises an organization’s risk of facing discrimination and privacy lawsuits. Moreover, this increasingly outdated practice is unlikely to produce the same kind of ROI as investing in office fitness aids that employees universally appreciate. One clue? In Silicon Valley’s tech startup scene, where competition for employees is fierce, outfitting new offices with adjustable-height furniture and treadmill desks has become a major tool in the recruitment and retention game. This despite the fact that the average employee is much younger than would be found at larger, more established corporations. In the corporate wellness arena, maintaining the health and productivity of your employees is all about spending wisely. Active furniture – which improves the way people work – is just the right investment that can benefit your company.