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Economics and Employee Wellness


Why it pays to get well and stay well.

If 2010 is the year you plan to finally drop a few pounds or snuff that smoking habit, your employer may offer incentives to make those resolutions stick or even pay off with lower health premiums.

More companies -- mimicking Abbott (ABT), American Express (AXP), and Capital One (COF) -- have started offering employees so-called wellness programs, which typically include free or discounted gym memberships, weight-loss programs, or smoking cessation classes. They aim to improve the health -- and consequently, productivity -- of employees while eventually reducing medical costs the employer has to cover.

Last year, 93 percent of companies with more than 200 employees offered at least one wellness program along with regular health benefits, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust. That's up from 88 percent in 2008.

(See also, Get Fit for Less and Working with Employees Pays Off.)

Wellness programs can vary greatly and many offer incentives to attract workers. Even if you don't plan to participate, it may pay to carefully consider your company's program. Here are some things to think about:

Q: How do I get started with a wellness program?

A: The first place to stop for information at most companies is the human resources department. Most programs start with a health risk assessment, which usually involves a survey about your health habits and medical history. These assessments can be accompanied by a physical and tests that measure blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass.

Q: That's a lot of personal information. Can my employer see that and use it against me?

A: Companies must keep employee medical information confidential and separate from personnel files. Your employer cannot fire you simply because you're deemed an expensive medical risk.

Despite this safeguard, workers should still ask how wellness records are separated from personnel files and who keeps them, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit that monitors employee rights.

If wellness records are kept by a third-party administrator at another office, they're probably safe, he said. But if they're kept by the company, there's always a chance an executive could seek access.

"Just because it's illegal doesn't mean it doesn't happen," he said.

Also worth noting, some wellness programs may stretch the definition of the word "voluntary." Employees should read the details even if they don't plan to participate. A program may assume an employee is a smoker if that person does not say otherwise on a health risk assessment form. That means the employee pays a higher premium than co-workers who receive a discount after completing the assessment.
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