Could Wellness Programmes Be Costing The Sick?

Workplace wellness schemes sound like the answer to all of our prayers – a discounted gym membership or help quitting cigarettes, all for less money and right on-site at work? Great news to many. And this great news is something that’s becoming increasingly popular for a number of large companies who are offering this as an incentive to work for the company itself. But for businesses, the deal is about to get even sweeter – not such great news for the employees. A new health reform law will soon let employers reward their workers’ efforts to get healthy with discounts of up to 30 per cent of their healthcare costs, up from 20 per cent previously. They’ll also be able to penalise employees who fail to meet their health goals by the same amount, which has been designed to ‘weed out’ sick workers and lower the amount of days companies need to pay for employees being off sick.

Around 61 per cent of employers give workers financial incentives to get healthier, which is up from 36 per cent three years ago according to surveys. One in five uses penalties, and many more companies say they’re going to introduce this plan next year. Most current plans offer the carrot rather than the stick, but if poorly designed workplace wellness programmes can shift the cost towards those with the greatest healthcare needs, it could potentially discriminate against sick workers. This way of working would work similarly to this – if employers raise deductibles from £500 to £2500, workers can then earn ‘credits’ worth £500 each to lower the deductible if they meet certain targets for four factors, such as body-mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood pressure. This will wind up back to a £500 deductible, but if you’re on the wrong end of those tests, then your costs have immediately gone up.

Some people claim that the only way to reduce health costs is to motivate people with money, which will mean incentives will only apply to things workers have control over. But there’s a fundamental question behind all of this: how much should people bear the cost of their own healthcare? People are buying health insurance on their own and pay as much as 23 per cent higher premiums if they smoke or are obese, according to research. Such incentives are routine in other insurance markets – no-one questions why good drivers pay lower rates than the teens who smashed up their first car. Workplace wellness incentives should actually make people healthier and shouldn’t just be a way of shifting costs onto sick workers. There’s strong research to back up the fact that the higher the deductible, the greater the barrier is to accessing care. Someone may not be getting the basic primary care or care they need to treat a chronic condition, and if that’s the case, the sick workers within a company actually get sicker. This costs the health system in the long run, which is a lose-lose situation.


In order to tackle this situation, companies need to put more thought into their workplace wellness programmes and ensure that the result of the plans are to encourage healthier lifestyles in their employees. Tricking employees into doing something just to make your company more money could wind up being foolish in the long run, as it will come back as a cost in another way and could end up making your employees even more sick than they were to begin with.

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