Companies pushing wellness must step lightly with workers

Businesses that promote wellness often have bigger worries than candy bars in office vending machines. They must confront employee concerns about privacy and discrimination and be ready for potential backlash from employees who don't like bosses pushing them to ramp up workouts or quit smoking.

"Done right, done well, these can be a good thing," says Lucinda Jesson, a professor at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, who has done extensive research on workplace wellness. Done wrong, they can come across as an "unwarranted intrusion into our personal lives."

Scotts Miracle-Gro raised red flags with a controversial wellness initiative a few years ago that let the company — in states where it's legal — retain the right to fire any employee who smoked, even when off-duty, and refuse to hire smokers.

"There were some people that said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, it sounds a little bit Big Brother,' " Scotts spokesman Jim King says. But, he says, the program is for the greater good of the company.

Scotts is self-insured, and after it did an analysis of rising health costs, it discovered that about a third of employees were smokers, and many were overweight.

In a bid to reduce health care expenses, Scotts added a 24,000-square-foot gym and medical center at its Marysville, Ohio, headquarters that is free for employees to use.

King wouldn't provide details on any cost savings but says statistics show that smokers have higher health care expenses. He also says that Scotts openly communicated with employees about why such measures were necessary.

Even less-controversial programs can cause ire. Employees may be taken aback when their company hires an outside vendor to review insurance claims and contact employees to offer health-oriented services. To head off problems, companies should spread the message that an employer sees only aggregate data, not individual results, and that employee privacy is protected by law, says Michael Wood, a Watson Wyatt senior health and productivity consultant.

Businesses should also stress ahead of time that all information between an employee and that outside company is private, he says.

LuAnn Heinen, vice president at National Business Group on Health, adds that even if companies adhere to legal rules, they still have to take care to not overstep the personal boundaries of employees. These programs "can't be pushed on people."

By Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY