Corporate Employee Wellness Wants You

Uncle Sam I Want You - Poster Illustration
(Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

At least it seems to want me. A corporate/university wellness program is stirring to life at the University of Washington: Whole U. An unfortunate title since a simple Google search of the name brings up numerous spa and ‘body aesthetics’ businesses offering laser treatments and ‘body composition improvement’ (aka: “We’ll take fat from your butt and inject it into your face”).

We already have a university employee wellness program (of sorts) called UWellness (a much better name than Whole U). The stated purpose of UWellness is “balancing the emotional, intellectual, occupational, social, and physical components of health.” Makes sense, except for the intellectual part. Did they just throw that in because we’re a university and should be doing scholarly and intellectual pursuits? What the heck is intellectual health? Avoidance of all writing by French philosophers?

UWellness currently offers the following wellness services: 1) free annual flu shots, 2) referrals to Weight Watchers for weight loss, 3) links to a student-run group promoting bicycle and walking safety (including selling low-cost bike helmets), and 4) free annual ‘routine mammography’ for all women ages 40 and above at an on-campus mobile mammography van (a mammobile?). The first three offerings make sense to me and would earn an A or B according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel of non-federal experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine. However, the mammography offering surprised me since the USPSTF changed their breast cancer screening guidelines in 2009 to recommend biennial routine mammography for women aged 50-75 only (biennial screening for women ages 40-50 is optional/not routinely recommended). UWellness contracts with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to provide the mobile mammography services, so I suppose they are stubbornly following the old guidelines (that the equally stubborn American Cancer Society still follows). There are, of course, intriguing political and economic self-interest issues there that I won’t touch on here…

The Whole U program is a “holistic employee engagement initiative which emphasizes community building, appreciation of the diverse lifestyles and interests of our faculty and staff and participation in programs that promote healthy lifestyles. Establishes a point system that encourages participation through prizes and engages a network of program ambassadors within departments to serve as key communicators in helping direct employees to the Whole U.” Sounds more than a bit Orwellian to me.

Penn State faculty recently staged a successful protest over the roll-out of their  university/corporate wellness program Take Care of Your Healththat required faculty and staff to fill out a questionnaire asking about workplace stress, marital problems and women’s pregnancy plans–or pay a $100 a month penalty. (Good NYT article on it here.) A recent RAND Corporation report Workplace Wellness Programs Study found that half of all U.S. employers offer some sort of employee wellness program, many of which include individual health risk assessments and the use of incentives for participation. The most popular employee wellness programs include support programs for weight loss and smoking cessation. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses of these employee wellness programs are lacking, but the RAND researchers estimate the programs should be cost neutral within five years of implementation.

Starting in January 2014 the ACA allows employers to offer incentives of up to 30% of health coverage costs to employees who participate in the wellness programs, including completion of the health risk assessments (and biometric assessments like body-fat percentage measurements, blood pressure readings, and blood glucose measurements). So get ready to be queried at work on your health behaviors, to have your candy vending machines taken away, and to have your waist and hips measured by ‘program ambassadors.’

Meanwhile, my version of corporate/university employee wellness includes avoidance of French philosophers. I’ve also bought a bouncy exercise ball to use as a desk chair–mainly because someone stole my corporate-issued office chair. And it may come in handy to fend off the Whole U program ambassadors when they come knocking on my door.

2 thoughts on “Corporate Employee Wellness Wants You

  1. I really dislike the “30% discount” clause in ACA. What it really means is that anyone who doesn’t wish to be dragged through some unregulated invasive data-sharing wellness program will have their healthcare contribution jacked 30%. Everyone who does volunteer for this government-sanctioned invasion of privacy will have their heathcare costs remain flat,, for this year.

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