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Corporate Wellness Programs in the Spotlight at SHRM Conference

One of the 200 or so concurrent sessions at the upcoming SHRM annual conference in Las Vegas is entitled “20 Characteristics of a Successful Worksite Wellness Program.”

To be conducted by Don Powell, the president and CEO of the American Institute of Preventive Medicine, the seminar description begins as follows: “This session will show you how you can reduce your company’s health care costs, absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover, while increasing productivity & morale.”

The session description goes on to cite comparative Harvard meta-data statistics of companies that provide corporate wellness programs, and the favorable return-on-investment figures impacting healthcare costs that such programs can achieve.

And there are numerous other breakout sessions on the agenda related to corporate and employee wellness. Also telling is the list of conference sponsors this year, which includes the ubiquitous Fitbit Wellness, as well as Withings/Corporate Wellness 360 – a company that provides smart health-related devices, advanced analytics on health metrics, and services to help organizations “create healthy communities” that can leverage the power of their wellness programs.

Not to be outdone, Philadelphia-based GlobalFit will be among the exhibitors at the conference’s exposition, where their extensive Gym Network and Fitbucks Rewards program will be on display.

Fitness Craze or Solution to a Healthcare Crisis?

Employee wellness programs have assumed a prominent place in HR agendas at organizations of every size and shape. From employees wearing Fitbit devices; to company cafeterias offering healthier food choices; to in-house Weight Watchers meetings and fitness classes; to smoking cessation programs and stress management workshops: there’s a definite movement in corporate America to motivate employees to live healthier lives, especially (but not exclusively) during the workday. 

“Not only are wellness programs valuable for the organizations and their employees… they are our biggest hope for fixing a national health crisis,” according to a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. There is a sea-change taking place in the workplace – almost like a national “rebranding” of sorts – to alter the corporate mindset about health from one of “sickness” to one of “wellness” (the term we can’t seem to get enough of).

The author of the Harvard Business Review article further urges that “with 150 million Americans going to work every day, corporate America is not only in the best position to change our nation’s health, but has a responsibility to do so.”

The most effective programs appear to create collective “partnerships” between employee and employer, not to mention adequate corporate funding and support, as well as a sense of shared responsibility. Of course, a certain amount of innovative thinking and an actively involved HR team are always important components for creating a healthier, more engaged workplace.

No Victims, Only Volunteers

At the same time, employee wellness initiatives have also made their way onto the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) radar. It brought at least three federal lawsuits last year against companies for instituting mandatory medical testing, which the Commission maintains is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a recent Fortune article.

More recently, the EEOC took up the case of a class-action suit brought by plaintiffs who felt their anonymity and comfort levels were being compromised by mandatory participation in corporate fitness activities, and that tracking vital statistics of employees whose current health may be sub-optimal may reward healthier workers at their expense, literally.

The main take-away here is the importance of keeping participation in wellness events (including medical screenings) voluntary and not mandatory. Wellness programs seem to function at their most optimal levels when they incentivize, not force, employees to embrace a healthier lifestyle. The bottom line in the growing trend of corporate wellness programs may very well prove to be just that: the bottom line.

Precise financial benefits may be hard to quantify, studies in the past couple of years have been pointing to reduced costs associated with fewer workmen’s compensation and disability claims, lower incidences of sick leave, and less dramatic healthcare cost increases at companies offering wellness programs.

If the meeting agenda of the upcoming SHRM conference is any indication, next year’s event may feature even more wellness-related discussions, corporate sponsors and exhibitors. 

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