Workplace wellness--or else

The workplace wellness movement has been rolling along for some years, but recently delivered to employees a new twist: Wellness...or else.

Reuters reported that about 25 percent of large employers that provide incentives for wellness use some sort of financial penalty against their workers if they don't participate in programs that are intended to improve their health. That's according to a new study by the National Business Group of Health. Many large employers are self-insured, so such penalties accrue directly to their bottom line if enforced. Most wellness program enrollees have lower medical costs of about $40 a year, according to Reuters. But the penalties are often 10 times more than that.

At Honeywell International, workers who opt-out of screenings specified by the company pay $500 a year more in premiums, and also lose out on a contribution of up to $1,500 to defray out-of-pocket costs, according to Reuters.

About 10 percent of Honeywell's workforce has declined to participate, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in outlays that the company has not had to pay.

"There seems little question that you can make wellness programs save money with high enough penalties that essentially shift more healthcare costs to workers," Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation told Reuters.

However, there is some question as to whether such penalties shift wellness programs from voluntary to compulsory--and therefore make them illegal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently sued a Wisconsin company that refused to pay the premiums of a worker that declined to undergo screenings.

And the consensus among many workplace wellness designers is that the best way for such a program to succeed is that it reflects the employer's overall culture.

To learn more:
- read the Reuters article
- check out the workplace wellness study (membership required)