Should employees be required to take biometric tests for wellness programs?

Workplace wellness programs are more popular than ever. Roughly half of all US employers offer some type of wellness program, in part because they see cost savings, and want to take advantage of it. A 2010 review of 36 wellness programs, for example, found a $3.27 reduction in medical costs and $2.73 decline in absenteeism costs for every dollar spent on wellness programs. For a major corporation with thousands of employees, the potential savings is significant.

Credit: http://www.sculptedlifestyles.com/Corpate-Wellness
Credit: http://www.sculptedlifestyles.com/Corpate-Wellness

Others are a bit more skeptical. Wellness programs remain fairly narrow in scope, focusing on issues like nutrition, weight, smoking cessation, and fitness, and uptake is still limited, according to a study by the RAND Corporation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor.

One way some employers are trying to boost uptake is by making the wellness program mandatory. But, such mandates are raising red flags. Should employees be penalized for opting out of a wellness program (assuming there is actually a choice to be made)?

The question is now a legal one as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently filed a suit (the third of its kind related to employer wellness program requirements) against Honeywell, the global technology company, because it penalized employees up to $4,000 if they or their spouses failed to take biometric tests as part of the company’s wellness program.

Regardless of how effective such programs really are (a topic for a future post) and if the metrics used to track progress are really the best ones (another topic for a future post), the imposition of mandates or requirements often make Americans squeamish. The ongoing debate about the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” – or the requirement that people be insured or face a penalty – is a good barometer about the public’s stance on mandates and health decisions. People sometimes struggle to see the value of buying health insurance if they are perfectly healthy at the present moment and see no immediate illness in sight.

Do wellness programs face a similar challenge of communicating value, not for employers, but for employees? Much of the debate has focused on the value derived by employers: cost savings, increasing productivity, decreased absenteeism. If the value of such programs – i.e. if health is one of the top priorities, everything else will follow – was better communicated, better understood, and more intimately embraced by employees, would we be looking at a different picture?

What are your thoughts about wellness program mandates? Should employees be required to participate unless face a financial penalty?

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