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Is Your Workplace Wellness Program an Invasion of Your Privacy?

Topics: Work Culture
workplace wellness
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It starts with a few changes to the company wellness perks: a new gym benefit, some smoking cessation programs you could join.

Then there’s a free step tracker and a staff distance goal for the week. Then you learn that if you sign up for all of the wellness program you get a big break on the amount you pay for your employee health insurance. But you won’t get a dime unless you let the company see your medical history.

What do you do when the “voluntary” employee perk isn’t so easy to say no to? Even worse, what happens when that perk comes with a peek into your family’s history of heart disease or your children’s asthma?

When it comes to workplace wellness programs, your employer may want its pound of flesh, but that shouldn’t mean you should give it up.

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Workplace Wellness Isn’t New

An elaborate wellness program can be very tempting. When the reward for going to the gym a dozen times a month is money in the bank (as well as, presumably, fitness), it’s hard to say no. But when you feel more pressure to sign up than to not — is it really voluntary?

Examples of employer wellness programs include:

  • Free gym memberships
  • Free weight loss program memberships
  • Discounts for quitting smoking
  • Free flu shots on site

The goal of these programs is lower costs for employers by increasing employee wellness. However if employees take advantage of wellness programs they also might:

  • Take fewer sick days
  • Have fewer chronic illnesses (which also can be expensive to the employer’s healthcare plan costs)
  • Have improved mental health because they’re happier
  • Bond and build strong teams through a shared goal
  • Be more loyal to the employer

Ultimately, Your Private Life is Just That…Private

“Workplace wellness programs that offer employees a financial carrot for undergoing health screenings, sticking to exercise regimens or improving their cholesterol levels have long been controversial,” wrote Julie Appleby at NPR.

She continued, “Under the Americans with Disabilities Acts and genetic privacy law, an employer can’t force someone to disclose this kind of private information — any disclosure must be voluntary. The central question is how truly voluntary something is when a large financial incentive is attached.”

Appleby cites a 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed that 85 percent of large employers who offered health insurance also provided some sort of wellness program. Over half of those programs included medical screening.

The Future of Wellness Programs

Recent court rulings have called into question how high a financial incentive employers can offer for participation in wellness programs — especially with a requirement of a privacy-busting medical exam.

HR departments and employers sorting out next year’s wellness perks are in a pickle. They might choose to skim things down to seem less “wow” and more “OK.” Or they might get rid of them altogether.

How will your benefits change next year? You might have fewer free gym memberships or complimentary nicotine patches and more fresh fruit in the break room. Or maybe it’ll all mean you get a raise instead! We’ll all have to wait and see.


Has a company wellness program changed your life? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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