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Wellness in the Workplace

By Lydia Mitts,


More and more employers are turning to wellness programs as a way to reduce their health care costs. As these programs gain momentum, it’s time to set the record straight on the difference between good wellness programs that support workers’ health and wellness programs that can actually hinder people’s ability to maintain and improve their health and well-being.

Wellness programs are supposed to support workers in adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, or quitting smoking.  The reality is adopting these behaviors isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t have access to certain resources, like a gym, a grocery store with fresh produce, or smoking cessation classes. This is where wellness programs can come in.

Workplace wellness programs can help employees by making sure that they have the tools they need to actually adopt these healthy behaviors.  This could mean organizing a fitness class or walking group for the office, offering a smoking-cessation course, or offering brown-bag lunch seminars with a nutritionist.  When wellness programs provide benefits that help people adopt healthy lifestyles, they can be a great way to support employees’ health.

However, programs that threaten access to affordable health coverage and care don’t support workers’ well-being.  An increasing number of wellness programs are doing just that by using “incentives” that require workers to pay higher health care costs if they cannot meet certain health outcomes, like a lower benchmark BMI or blood pressure score, or if they do not participate in certain activities. People who are trying to lose weight or are managing a chronic condition like high blood pressure need to be able to see their doctor and obtain necessary health services and medications in order to successfully maintain and improve their health. Making these individuals pay higher premiums or co-pays can make it more difficult for them to get the health care they need to maintain good health. While called “wellness programs,” programs that use these types of incentives run counter to the goal of improving employees’ health and well-being.

Wellness programs have great potential to help people improve their overall health and well-being, but they need to be designed in ways that fully support health. There are a multitude of effective and creative initiatives employers can take on that support individuals in improving their health and well-being, while also protecting their access to essential health coverage and care. Check out Working toward Wellness: Creating Consumer-Friendly Workplace Wellness Programs to learn more about the many steps employers can take to create wellness programs that support workers’ efforts to improve their health, and to learn about five real businesses that are already finding consumer-friendly ways to support their employees’ health and well-being.