Are Employee Workplace Wellness Programs a Good Idea?


How would you react to a bonus for losing a few pounds or getting plenty of sleep? That sounds great! But what if the bargain included losing part of your paycheck if you didn’t meet employer-mandated health guidelines?

A growing number of employers are instituting what they call “health and wellness” plans for employees. Some of them look terrific on the surface. But some feel that they’re invasive and unfairly penalize workers who don’t want to divulge what would otherwise be very personal and private information.

Aetna Institutes a Sleep Initiative

According to Aetna CEO, Mark Bertolini, employee health and wellness is directly tied to the company’s bottom line. That sentiment is echoed by company spokesman T.J. Crawford. He explained, “Having a well-rested and more present workforce is a win for everyone – our employees, our members and our shareholders.”

It all sounds logical enough and even beneficial. For every 20 days that an Aetna employee gets plenty of sleep, says Huffington Post sleep reporter, Sarah DiGiulio, she earns $25, and up to $300 total. Employees can either sync a FitBit to the company’s wellness platform or track sleep manually.

Ariana Huffington Supports the Sleep Initiative

HuffPo’s founder and EIC, Arianna Huffington, met with Bertolini during a recent CNBC Squawk Box segment. Huffington, who has recently published a book on the importance of sleep, agreed that Aetna’s plan “changes the cultural delusion that most businesses have been operating under, which has been … the more exhausted and burned out the employees are, the more productive they are.” Her sentiment echoes that of many workers around the country.

Huffington has been outspoken about her own burnout and collapse from exhaustion a few years ago. She explained to People Magazine, that in 2007, she woke in a pool of blood on the floor of her office with a broken cheekbone. It was only after numerous tests that the culprit was determined to be exhaustion. She now calls herself a “reformed workaholic.”

But What if the Plan Works Backward?

Sleep is beneficial. There’s no denying that. But what if a company’s health and wellness plan goes beyond offering incentives for good health to take away money for noncompliance? Some people believe that’s a bridge too far. The Aetna program doesn’t require participation and no employee is asked to divulge health info. But others do.

A study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in March at the American College of Physicians, says that it works. After observing employees of one employer based in Pennsylvania, researchers concluded “Financial incentives framed as a loss were most effective for achieving physical activity goals.” Consumer groups have expressed concerns that these plans could ultimately force workers to disclose private medical information – information that would otherwise be protected by HIPPA – and also lead to discrimination and higher health insurance costs.

Employee health and wellness is the concern of most employers. But employees and advocates are divided on how that should play out in the workplace. A healthier, well-rested workforce certainly affects productivity in a positive way. But should employers have the right to ask for private health information and then penalize employees for not providing it?

Part of a recruiter or hiring manager’s job is to match candidates with the company culture to the extent possible. If that culture is heavily skewed toward employer involvement in employee fitness, then the consumer advocates could be right. Lack of compliance, or even evidence of a lack of sleep, could ultimately lead to hiring discrimination. For clinical insomniacs and people with an infant at home, the outlook might not be so great.

Improving recruitment is Real Match’s job.

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