5 Signs an Employee Wellness Program is Bogus

Entrepreneurs selling employee wellness programs are having their day in the sun. And why not? Employees spend most of their waking hours at work and the workplace has a huge impact on an employee’s health and risk of obesity. Who could possibly be opposed to promoting wellness?

But the problem is that many, if not most, employee wellness programs have no evidence that they actually improve employee health and save money. A recent analysis in Health Affairs highlighted the sad state of affairs in the evidence base for employee wellness programs. Jill Horwitz, Brenna Kelly, and John DiNardo found “savings to employers may come from cost shifting, with the most vulnerable employees — those from lower socioeconomic strata with the most health risks — probably bearing greater costs that in effect subsidize their healthier colleagues.”

No doubt some employers really have the best interests of their employees at heart and have developed employee wellness programs that will do more good than harm. Others are not doing so well against this standard — either their motives are all about the money or they’ve been duped by puffery from people selling these programs.

So here are five clues that an employee wellness program is bogus. At least you’ll know what you’re dealing with.

1. The health plan won’t cover obesity treatment. If an employer’s wellness program concerns itself with your weight but the health plan won’t cover medical or surgical treatment of obesity, it’s reasonable to question their sincerity.

2. One-size-fits-all BMI goals. BMI is a great tool for an epidemiologist. But for figuring out what your weight goal should be, it’s not so great. And it’s worse than useless when an employer says that everyone needs to meet the same BMI goal. A fundamental truth of obesity medicine is that one size does not fit all.

3. Pushing people with obesity and chronic diseases into bare bones health plans. This trick is especially troubling. Some employers will nudge employees who don’t meet a specific outcome goal (say a BMI of 25) into high deductible, low benefit health plans. It’s more often a nudge than a shove, but the push is clear enough. You might seek exceptions, but you have to jump through all the right hoops and you have to do it quickly or you’re in the bare bones plan whether you want it or not.

That works great for the employer if the goal is to cut health insurance costs. Bare bones plans are cheaper. The trouble is that the people who will never reach an arbitrary BMI goal of 25 — even with the best treatment available — are the ones who need good health insurance the most. An employer who does this is either being boneheaded or doesn’t really care about employees with obesity. Maybe both.

4. An employer that doesn’t encourage healthy physical activity during work hours. Stressful occupations that prevent an employee from being physically active during work hours put the employee at high risk of obesity. Pressuring employees to take action to achieve a healthy weight without the employer fixing an unhealthy workplace is an appalling act of hypocrisy. We have more you can read about employee wellness and active workplaces here.

5. A cafeteria filled with low-quality junk food. Google and other employers have demonstrated that employers have tremendous control over the quality of food choices employees can make. Employers who care about their employees will fix the problems they control before they start labeling employees with obesity as a problem. You can read more about worksite nutrition and employee wellness here.

Click here to read the Horwitz study. Click here and here to read more in the Huffington Post.

Pinocchio 1940, image by Walt Disney / Wikimedia

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.