Recently, it has come to light that some big data might be letting employers in on borderline intrusive nuggets of employee information. From employees who’ve opted in to healthcare and wellness apps getting “outed” when it comes to pregnancy info, to employers having a little too in-depth a look at smoking, poor eating, and exercise habits and more, the line between what employers can access and what they should access is becoming blurred.

There are two sides to every story, of course, but it’s hard to blame employees for being concerned at just how much personal information employers may be able to obtain and how that information may reflect in pay and opportunity. Regulations are in place, but bias is hard to identify and technology has been known to produce grey areas quicker than we can handle.

Workplace wellness is no stranger to those grey areas. As Ron Goetzel points out, a truly laissez faire employer would eliminate programs like on-site or subsidized child care, pension or savings plans, tuition reimbursement, healthcare benefits and a whole onslaught of things that we consider more than just perks. On the other hand, employers going so far as to penalize employees for not participating in wellness programs are probably tipping the scales too far the other way. Where’s the happy middle?

The Booming Wellness Initiative Industry

The Affordable Care Act brought more than just more paperwork at tax time. Employer-sponsored wellness programs were encouraged under the regulations as well, leading more than 60% of employers to implement such initiatives. Unfortunately, though, while over half of employers are jumping on the wellness bandwagon, less than 20% of employees are actually participating.

Because the programs are allegedly beneficial to preventative care, which possibly lowers participants’ healthcare costs, companies are interested in pushing enrollment numbers. However, that’s raising questions around details like how to approach employees with chronic illness, severe sickness, pregnancy, or other disabilities.

Recent research shows 71% of employers believe these wellness programs are cutting healthcare costs. Unfortunately, studies around those theories are thought to be of poor quality and methodology and are actually conducted/written by those within the now $6 billion wellness industry. What is being found more often than not is that cost savings are occurring because the responsibility of their expenses are shifting from the employer to the employee by way of penalties.

Involuntary, Voluntary, and Supportive

Of course, industry politics aside, no one can really deny that promoting health and wellness within your workforce is a positive. And promotion is just about the best way to address such a controversial topic. Our country spends an overwhelming amount on healthcare, and the effects that mental or physical wellness has on absenteeism or productivity are obvious.

I know very well the challenges of being a desk- and digital-dependent professional, as well as how challenging it can be to lead them. In general, the Red Branch team happens to be pretty health conscious. To continue building that practice, we provide levels in the office via standing desk options, balance boards, and even a bike desk. There are no requirements to use any of these perks, but most of my team does anyway.

There’s also value in what I don’t provide. Coffee and bottled water? Yes. Sugary soda and junk food? Not really. Subsidized gym memberships? Sure thing! Workplace yoga? No thanks. These are the right decisions for OUR group, but may not resonate with the insurance company across the street who choose to participate in 5K fun runs, and have a cafe with muffins the size of my face.

We have the ability to easily speak with our employees, grab ideas of what would work well and what doesn’t at all, and, without as much cost, provide some options. Outdoor walks when it’s nice, ping-pong games when we’re too stressed to tackle another problem, and wine down Fridays are all things I really believe contribute to our wellness at work. It’s not my responsibility as an employer to demand health screenings and reports, but I do care a great deal about the health, both physical, mental, and financial, of my people. Ultimately, their health affects the health of their department.

The Answer?

There is no simple answer. Some companies are taking the “stick” approach, placing penalties where health goals aren’t met, while others are leaning toward the “carrot” approach, where rewards are given for participation. My approach is somewhere in between. Employees are adults, and they will either make health a priority, or they won’t. My job as an employer is to do my best in leading them to success, both for my company and themselves. Provide options, listen to employees, encourage healthy work habits, and consider small scale contests like “Biggest Loser” or “Debt Cleanse.” Making it a fun team event will not only support wellness, but will also serve as a culture building exercise.

Running a business is as easy as avoiding a glass of wine on a hard day — possible, but the odds are against you. When it comes to the health and wellness of employees, company leaders do have a responsibility to their people. Remember not to be bogged down by all the trends that come and go. Simply focusing on creating a supportive atmosphere, encouraging skill building, and remembering the need for work and life balance are all contributors to a healthy and productive workforce.


Maren Hogan is a seasoned marketer, writer, and business builder in the HR and recruiting industry. Founder and CEO of Red Branch Media, an agency offering marketing strategy, outsourcing, and thought leadership to HR, recruiting technology, and services organizations internationally, Hogan is a consistent advocate of next-generation marketing techniques. She has built successful online communities, deployed brand strategies, and been a thought leader in the global recruitment and talent space. You can read more of her work on Forbes, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, and her blog Marenated.

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