Overweight? Prepare to Pay Up

With health-care costs rising, some large employers are taking radical new steps to cut corners: They're charging overweight employees a fee if they don't slim down.

It's a strategy companies have used for years with smokers, which has many people wondering whether these heavy-handed employer tactics are a sign of things to come.

It's not necessarily the wave of the future. While controlling costs is paramount for any business, the happiness and morale of its work force are also quite relevant. There are many people who believe that when employers start requiring weigh-ins and cholesterol checks, they've gone way too far.

So the issues of employee loyalty/satisfaction and privacy concerns, combined with some serious legal challenges, given the protection afforded to employees in the Americans with Disabilities Act — which says that employers can't discriminate on the basis of health — will be cause for concern among employers before they rush out to adopt this stance.

It's no secret that skyrocketing health-care costs are of concern to employers and employees alike. Each of us is paying for it, and our bosses are too. We'd all like to save money. But it's more than just obesity and smoking that contribute to those enormous premiums, which leads to several questions.

How far can — or should — an employer go? Do you penalize an employee with breast cancer because her treatment costs are astronomical? What about someone with a brain tumor or a skin disorder? Do you monitor alcohol intake to determine whether employees are showing up hungover and therefore aren't as productive as sober people?

Reward Versus Punishment

In theory, anything an employer can do to help its work force to be healthy is great and should be perceived as great — often a blessing in disguise — even if it is motivated by business needs, not necessarily the health and welfare of its people.

That said, there are many critics who say punishment through financial penalties is not a sound solution — and that rewards are often much more successful. Not only do incentives boost morale, but they achieve the desired results. Not long ago we focused on companies that were investing in health and wellness programs and challenges — and the management was thrilled with the results.

In fact, a recent survey found that when major corporations took the time to measure their return on investment for health and wellness incentive programs, more than 75 percent said it was greater than breaking even.

Slippery Slope?

Many critics worry that employers could get too familiar with our private lives and our personal relationships. And indeed many already are. Last month we introduced "Good Morning America" viewers to the growing trend of workplace chaplains — on-site clergy who minister to employees, mainly about personal issues that range from marital woes to coping with a family member's illness.

There are other companies that are now introducing forms of marriage counseling. The theory is that when your home life is a wreck or you're worried that your spouse is cheating, you bring those fears to work and it impacts your performance. So it behooves an employer to offer on-site seminars on improving relationships and maintaining healthy marriages — because happy individuals make happy employees.

But in the end, most people say the buck's got to stop somewhere with a healthy balance between controlling costs while allowing employees to maintain their personal privacy as well.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. Connect with her at www.womenforhire.com

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