March 21, 2007

Mandating Employee Health?

“Helping employees get healthier is an honorable goal—even if you have to use strong arm tactics to do it”, says Jeff Bedard, CEO of Crown Laboratories. Bedard is currently using his own strong-arm tactics, by implementing a wellness program to compel his 61 employees to get healthier.

The wellness program used by Crown requires each employee to get an annual on-site health assessment. During the assessment the employee’s blood pressure, weight, physical activity level, and cholesterol are taken. From these indicators a “wellness number” is assigned, a number of up to twenty-four is assigned to each employee, the higher the number the better. Employees who maintain a score of twenty or higher and/or improve their scores within a designated time period by at least three points will receive $500 bonus and additional days off.

Traditionally wellness programs have been voluntary, but now Crown and other companies are making them mandatory for employees. However, there is still no state or federal regulation dictating whether employees can be required to participate in wellness programs and offer them cash incentives. With Crown’s health care costs rising over 30% for the past few years, Bedard decided it was up to him to help his employees to get healthy.

Although there are many prohibitive tobacco laws in the United States, there are also laws that provide protection for smokers from discrimination in the workplace. Thirty states and Washington D.C. have laws against firing or demoting smokers in the workplace. This helps to safeguard employees and their legal right to smoke and prevents the employer from deciding what his or her employees do on their own time. Such states as California, Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota have laws specifically restricting employers from forbidding any legal activity a worker does in their off-hours. These laws are put into place fearing a slippery slope once employers start controlling what their employees are doing in their free time.

Crown Laboratories should eliminate the mandatory aspects of its wellness program. The obligatory portion of the wellness program opens the company to discrimination suits and the program is not job-related. Instead of basing bonuses or vacation time on the wellness scores, one recommendation for Crown would be to base such incentives on job performance. In no way does smoking effect job performance, job quality, or job quantity. Basing bonuses and vacation time on anything other than job performance is not right and could make the company liable for wrongful termination suits.

Crown should eliminate the mandatory aspect of the program, which has the potential to increase motivation, productivity, and the health of employees if the motivation is intrinsic. A voluntary wellness program protects Crown and its image from discrimination suits and will show more respect, trust and loyalty to its employees.