Over the past decade or two, the increased focus on work environments and the need to balance work, home and health have contributed to the popularity of workplace wellness programs. While receiving much attention and kudos, these programs have recently made news headlines as the focus of some controversy and even legal action. The reason? Company use of incentives and even consequences to encourage participation in wellness programs. Is it fair to attack wellness programs and employers for incenting healthy behavior?
Is it fair to say that it’s bad to encourage people to take steps known to be good for their health?
A view of “incenting”
What does this “incenting” look like? It can take many forms depending upon an individual company’s choices. At WebMD, one form of this involves a reduction in health insurance premiums. When first hired, our employees pay a set rate for coverage based upon their plan selections and number of people covered. If during that year they earn enough points, they can save a significant amount on their health insurance the next year.
Points can be earned by completing various activities like an online health assessment, a biometric screening or an annual preventive medical exam or dental cleaning. There are other options that may involve goals like quitting smoking, losing weight or managing a specific condition.
How different is it?
One could argue that wellness programs are in some ways no different to many other things in our society that tap into a reward/consequence system to drive action. Take, for example, speed limits. While some drivers obey these diligently simply because they always follow the rules or because they hold a deep reverence for the inherent safety that speed limits aim to provide, others obey the law primarily to avoid getting a ticket.
Auto insurance companies are putting this concept into play with devices and programs that track drivers’ activity. These programs are voluntary and can result in rate savings or increases based upon the results. With the Snapshot® program from Progressive Insurance, people can save up to 30% or pay up to 10%.
Why do these things work? Because people are not always so willing to “do the right thing” unless there exists some benefit for doing so—or consequence for not. From a very young age, we are taught to operate on this principle to some degree. Want your child to behave in the supermarket checkout line? You know what treat to dangle as the carrot. Want to get a scholarship to college? Don’t skip school and focus on your grades. Want to get that promotion at work? Get down to business. Want to buy a house? Pay your bills on time to make sure your credit is in good shape. You get the idea.
How bad is it?
The laws of human nature seem to make us need some type of reward or consequence to help us do what we know we should at times. It’s no secret that getting off the couch and moving is good for us. It’s no secret that stopping smoking is good. It’s no secret that getting your teeth cleaned regularly helps prevent plaque buildup and therefore reduces the risk of gum disease or other problem. Yet, it’s hard to do these things sometimes. That’s where some help comes into play.
Maybe, just maybe, a wellness program can provide the stimulation needed for someone to make a choice that really improves their life. And, if someone does take advantage of such a program to make a positive lifestyle change, they will benefit not just at work but at home and not just today but potentially for the rest of their lives.
Employers put a lot of money into providing good wellness programs for their employees. Encouraging employees to take advantage of them could be looked upon as a way to get both parties doing their part toward a better tomorrow.