What You Should Know Before Joining an Employee Wellness Program

What You Should Know Before Joining an Employee Wellness Program
By Ashley Moss | June 18, 2021

Weigh-in time at NBC’s The Office

In 2019 more than 80% of large employers offered a workplace wellness program as healthcare trends in America turn toward disease prevention. Some wellness programs focus on behavioral changes like smoking cessation, weight loss, or stress management. Participants might complete a health survey or undergo biometric tests in a lab. Many employers offer big financial incentives for participating and/or reaching target biometric values. While on the surface this may seem like a win-win for employers and employees, this article takes a closer look at the potential downsides of privacy compromise, unfairness, and questionable effectiveness.

Laws and regulations that normally protect your health data may not apply to your workplace wellness program. The federal government’s HIPAA laws cover doctor’s offices and insurance companies who use healthcare data. These laws limit information sharing to protect your privacy and require security measures to ensure the safety of electronic health information.

If a workplace wellness program is offered through an insurance plan, HIPAA applies. However, if it is offered directly through the employer, HIPAA does not apply. This means the program is not legally required to follow HIPAA’s anti-hacking standards. It also means employee health data can be sold or shared without legal repercussions. Experts warn that an employer with direct access to health data could use it to discriminate against, or even lay off, those with a high cost of care.

Although these programs claim to be voluntary, employers provide a financial incentive averaging hundreds of dollars. It’s unclear how much pressure this places on each employee, especially because the dollar penalty a person can afford really depends on their financial situation. There is some concern that employers have a hidden agenda: Wellness programs shift the burden of medical costs away from the employer and toward unhealthy or non-participating employees.

Wellness programs may be unfair to certain groups of people. Research shows that programs penalize lower wage workers more often, contributing to a “poor get poorer” cycle of poverty. Wellness programs may also overlook entire categories of people who have a good reason not to join, such as people with disabilities. In one case, a woman with a double mastectomy faced possible fines for missing mammograms until she provided multiple explanations to her employer’s wellness program.

Experts question the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs, since evidence shows little impact to key outcomes. Two randomized studies followed participants for 12+ months and found no improvement to medical spending or health outcomes. Wellness programs do not require physician oversight, so the interventions may not be supported by scientific evidence. For example, Body Mass Index (BMI) has fallen out of favor in the medical community but persists in wellness programs.

Wellness programs may focus on reducing sedentary time or tracking steps.

 Before joining an employee wellness program, do your homework to understand more about the potential downsides. Remember that certain activities are safer than others: are you disclosing lab results or simply attending a lecture on healthy eating? If you are asked to share information, get answers first: What data will be collected? Which companies can see it? Can it be used to make employment decisions? Lastly, understand that these programs may not be effective and cannot replace the advice of a trained physician.