What To Do When the Boss Catches Wellness Fever

Employer-created wellness programs tend to emphasize what workers should do on their own time, not what the employer could do to stop making them sick at work. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com.

Wellness programs are designed to bring down employers’ health insurance costs by preventing illness. Some provide gym memberships or smoking cessation programs. Others require workers to pay more for their insurance if they don’t get certain screenings. The most coercive programs require workers to meet health targets or pay a penalty.

“If employers are really concerned, why don’t they start with something they can control and provide a safe and healthy workplace?” asks Nancy Lessin, a health and safety specialist with the Steelworkers.

Read about wellness programs here and see below for advice on how to address such programs in the workplace.


Healthy jobs. Insist that if management wants its workforce to be healthy, it should address all the factors under management’s control, rather than policing employees’ actions during their own time.

These include night shifts or rotating shifts, long hours, chemicals, repetitive motion, stress, and lack of control over workplace decisions. Management should make sure members have adequate time to eat and to take their breaks.

In other words, the union should insist on its entire health and safety agenda as the most important step toward wellness.

Bargain specifics. Demand to bargain over the wellness program itself. Don’t accept management’s definition of the program.

Pooled risk. Remind management that the whole point of group insurance is that risk is shared across a population. That’s the opposite of hitting the sick with extra costs.

Positive alternatives. Focus on programs that provide benefits to members without coercion: gym memberships; healthy food in cafeterias and vending machines; smoking cessation classes; walking-buddy programs. One large employer sponsors a farmer’s market near the workplace.




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Cost data. If management asserts that a certain group of workers costs more in insurance claims, demand proof relevant to your own workforce.

Job risks. Request information on every aspect of the job that could increase risk of illness or injury. What do studies show about the relationship of shift work and breast cancer, for example? If the employer wants to target asthma, how can it be caused or contributed to by work?

Employer responsibility. Ask what the employer is doing specifically to eliminate or reduce these hazards.


Real wellness. The program’s design should focus on employee health rather than cost reduction. The design of the program should emphasize prevention.

Voluntary. Individual participation should be voluntary and not coerced through financial penalties.

Privacy. Individual health information should be managed by a third party—not the employer—and kept strictly confidential. Management may have aggregated results information from which no individual information can be ascertained.

Participation. Any monetary incentives should be paid for participation in programs—not results. For example, an employee could earn dollars off a deductible for participating in a smoking cessation program, whether successful or not.

Hazards. Health risk questionnaires should not just ask about outside-of-work risks. They should ask about work exposure to chemicals, radiation, and biological, ergonomic, and safety hazards, as well as night shifts, understaffing, and intensified work.

For more education on wellness programs, download a pamphlet that’s both a cautionary tale and a guide to handling such programs, Which Way to Wellness. The pamphlet includes six writers who've dealt with wellness programs and was produced with support from the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes 406, January 2013. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.