HR, Heal Thyself: Wellness in the Workplace

The research, literature and advice available for employers around the issue of workplace wellness initiatives is massive.  Not only can one access reams of data that supports the benefits of implementing such programs but there are also a number of HR vendors (technology, service, and consultative) that can assist in management should your organization choose to focus on employee wellness. 

Much of the program information available, including this Workplace Wellness Programs Study by the US Department of Labor, indicates that employers focus on improving employees’ health-related behaviors with a primary goal of reducing health care costs and improving appropriate utilization of employer-sponsored health care plans.  Most organizations tend to focus on the ‘traditional’ program components such as wellness screening activities and interventions and promotion of healthy lifestyles.  The RAND employer survey data as outlined in the DOL Program Study found that “80 percent of employers with a wellness program screen their employees for health risks, and our case study results show that employers use results for program planning and evaluation and for directing employees to preventive interventions that address their health risks. “

But as the concept of workplace wellness matured over the years it has led many employers to assume the role of parent.  HR professionals from all over, even those who keep a dish of candy on their desk and a pack of Marlboro Lights in their purse, now believe it’s their role to lecture employees to “stop smoking,” “eat your vegetables and cut out the potato chips,” and “go outside and walk around the block you lazy slug.” 

Is that really the role of the employer?  Should HR practitioners, who are neither licensed medical professionals nor nutrition experts, be the people responsible for chastising employees for their lifestyle choices? 

I, for one, say no.

I’m not saying the average employee might not want and need some health information, and as long as we continue to consider employer-sponsored medical coverage a de factor part of the work experience organizations will continue to be a conduit to health information.  But the HR Department’s role is to ensure the medical plan provider – with whom they have contracted - is the entity providing wellness information.  To ensure that employees have access to care for issues impacting their whole life, the HR Department should make sure their benefit offerings include a robust employer-sponsored Employee Assistance Plan (EAP).  And as long as companies continue to offer medical coverage as an employee benefit the HR Department should work to provide the most affordable and comprehensive coverage they can.  They should not, however, assume the role of health-risk assessor or medical advisor.

If I were the cynical sort I might think that some HR professionals enjoy running a wellness program because it satisfies their need to insinuate themselves into people’s personal business.  It allows them to make rules and be bossy.  It lets them make lists, check things off, and threaten employees with non-compliance if they haven’t gotten their annual Health Risk Assessment completed by the deadline.

But I’m not a cynic.  Much.  

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