Are Company Wellness Plans Good for Your Health?

Your employer has created programs to prod you to get mammograms, stop smoking and exercise more. Should you feel grateful—or annoyed?

by Peter Jaret
Photograph: Illustrated by Gary Taxali

“My first thought was, They’ve got to be kidding,” says Kimberly Blockett, a professor of English at Penn State University. That was in midsummer 2013, just after she’d received a mailing from the university announcing a new wellness plan. Implemented to improve employee health and put the brakes on accelerating health care costs, the program required faculty and staff members to see a doctor, undergo a blood test that included cholesterol and blood sugar screenings and answer an online questionnaire that asked, among other things, about marital problems, workplace stress and women’s reproductive plans.

Employees who didn’t complete the questionnaire would have to pay an additional $100 a month or more for health insurance. “They were asking us very personal questions about our health in an online survey managed by a third party we knew nothing about,” recalls Blockett. Which is why she balked, as did many other employees. The resulting furor at Penn State made national headlines and eventually forced the university to suspend the penalty and review the plan. 

The intensity of the reaction at Penn State was unusual. For the most part, corporate wellness programs have been instituted around the country with little or no protest. And they’re increasingly common: Two thirds of companies that have three or more employees and provide health benefits offer at least one wellness program, according to a 2012 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. In what one expert has called a national experiment, virtually all companies with 1,000 or more employees offer some sort of wellness plan, in hopes of reducing their ­medical-insurance burden and possibly the number of sick days they pay for. But do these programs really improve employees’ health? Do they truly cut costs? And how do employers mesh cost-cutting desires with the concerns of their workers, who may feel that their privacy is being invaded?

The Promise of 
Better Health
“There’s a growing belief among employers that if they’re going to control health care costs, they need healthier employees,” says Helen Darling, CEO of the National Business Group on Health. The research inspiring this approach is clear: Scads of studies show that taking preventive health ­measures—­exercising, eating healthy foods and getting regular screenings—reduces the risk of serious and costly illness down the road.

What is the best way to encourage employees to comply? No one is sure, so a wide variety of wellness plans are being rolled out. Some consist of free membership at a fitness center or nutrition pamphlets distributed at the company cafeteria. Others may include on-site blood screening or fitness evaluations. Some programs are completely voluntary; employees can choose to participate or not without consequence. Others offer financial incentives, in the form of a reward or penalty, for participating. Success stories for these kinds of programs abound, and it’s likely that they’ve resulted in improved health for at least some employees.

The University of Iowa, for example, is sold on the benefits of its rewards-­oriented program, in which roughly three out of every four of its 22,000 employees are enrolled. Each participant receives $65 for filling out an online health-risk assessment every year; free health coaching is available to help employees lower their risks. The university tracks the program’s success by comparing movement into and out of the low-, ­moderate- and high-risk categories each year. “We’ve seen a steady migration of people into lower-risk categories,” says Megan Hammes, a human resources expert who directs the program. “We’ve been able to tie that to how people use sick leave. High-risk people are more likely to take sick leave than low-risk people. That means real cost savings.” According to the latest estimate, the university is saving $3.28 million a year because of a decline in sick days. “And at the individual level, there are lots of people here who have managed to quit smoking or lose weight, thanks to the program,” Hammes says.

First published in the July/August 2014 issue

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