The pros and cons of joining your company’s wellness program

As the conversation about wellness develops and matures, companies such as Disney and Whole Foods have introduced programs that incentivize healthy living among their employees. So is it time to strap on your corporate Fitbit and step onto an “employer-provided scale?”

If sharing personal details about your weight, glucose, and cholesterol through your employer gives you pause, you’re not alone. The Wall Street Journal reports that employees are feeling uneasy about the data their companies’ wellness providers are collecting, and not everyone loves the idea that organizations are allowing someone’s health to affect their personal finances.

In fact, in West Virginia, a teacher’s strike last year was in part because of a wellness program that slapped those who did not meet certain measured health achievements with a $500 increase in their annual insurance deductible. “People felt really violated,”  Tega Toney, a West Virginia teacher, told the Journal. “It was a Big Brother issue.”

Conversely, financial incentives are a major reason why employees adopt their company’s wellness program in the first place. Incentives for participation are on the rise; in 2018, the average annual maximum incentive was $784, according to the Journal. Incentives can take the form of prizes, gift cards, or health insurance discounts, to name a few.

Are wellness programs actually helpful?

For companies, implementing a health-related initiative is often a financial decision as well. Though it’s unclear if employee participation in wellness programs actually leads to employer savings in medical spending (one study cited by The Journal indicates otherwise), some organizations have saved huge sums by proactively addressing their workers’ health.

Since Cleveland Clinic started its wellness program in 2009, it has saved $668 million and experienced a decline in sick leave. “The government and your employer can’t make you healthy. It’s impossible,” Paul Terpeluk, medical director of employee health services at the clinic, told The Journal. “But what we can do is create an environment where you’re incentivized to be healthy.”

For some workers, these programs work well. Chereesa Williams, an employee at King Ranch, has lost 15 pounds in a year and saves $1200 annually on her health premiums.  “Nowadays if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” she told The Journal.

But for others, the data being collected poses broader questions — can information be directly connected to them? Where exactly is their data going, and how is it being used? What does all this mean for privacy?

“Many wellness providers retain the right to sell aggregate user data to advertisers and others, which critics fear could be matched with other information and potentially risk individual exposure,” according to the Journal. That means that sensitive information could become public — and on a smaller scale, the Journal reported that “it’s possible a provider would notify the employer about which individuals succeeded” in meeting health markers as part of a program.

“Some of this could get very predatory,” Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, told The Journal. “I think wellness programs are fantastic. But we need to do more to protect people’s data.”