should I become a subversive wellness committee member?

A reader writes:

I believe that you’ve expressed your opposition before to cheesy workplace wellness initiatives, and I agree with you that it’s not really my employer’s business what I eat/drink/do outside of work. However, my company recently started a BIG push with one of these, which to be fair seems to be motivated by a push on them from our health insurance carrier. Some of it is good (offering free flu shots at the office), some annoying but harmless (sending info about eating healthy food, as if people don’t know that eating healthy food is good for you), and some is rather invasive (encouraging and rewarding employees who voluntarily fill out a wellness survey that includes personal health information).

They are also looking for volunteers from all levels and departments to form a wellness committee, to serve as “role models” for other employees’ healthy behavior and brainstorm ideas for the wellness initiative. Would it be ridiculous for me to volunteer to join the committee, so that I can basically say, “The wellness initiative is kind of a joke. Let’s not do things that insult our employees and pry into their personal lives. If we must do something, let’s do things that are actually valuable, like make sure that we are staffed so that everyone can leave with enough time to go to the gym and/or cook a healthy dinner if they choose, rather than working until 8 p.m. and eating a pizza on the way home?” I sort of like the idea of being the subversive wellness committee member, but I’m wondering if I’d just be wasting my time.

You should absolutely join and do this! This is exactly the way to have an impact; it’s much easier to change the tenor and substance of these sorts of things if you have a voice on the inside … and not only would you be able to play a valuable role in arguing against intrusive suggestions, but you’d also be able to push for good things that don’t nanny employees or cross inappropriate boundaries.

For instance, you could push for things like:

  • good insurance with strong preventative care
  • healthy food in the vending machines and healthy snacks in the kitchen
  • subsidized gym memberships
  • flex schedules
  • stand-up desks for anyone who wants one
  • organizational support for people taking real vacation time where they truly disconnect from work

You must do this, letter-writer! So often, the people organizing these programs just don’t think critically about their substance — especially if they’ve been plied with promotional materials from awful wellness programs like this one — but when there’s a voice of reason on the inside, you can have a real impact.

If you find over time that the rest of the committee ignores you, you can always drop off (and tell them why), but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re able to dramatically influence what they roll out.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 198 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam*

    Seems brilliant to me. “Let’s make sure this is not a horrendous place to work” would probably go a long way towards improving the health of employees since the mental factor is a huge part of that.

  2. S3*

    I will say that I initially balked at my company’s wellness initiative. But in 18 months it led to a 50% increase in company contributions to gym memberships and greater insurance benefits. Employees now get 1 day off work each year to have a physical and the company picks up 100% of the premium on HDHP plans.

    My company is not that forward thinking so I was as shocked as anyone to see this actually work. It can happen.

  3. Shannon313*

    As someone who has served on one of these committees (and I am a gym rat/mostly healthy eater) I can say that many good things are accomplished by these initiatives and having a vocal person to state what they feel is and isn’t appropriate is valuable to the success of the programs. Because of the wellness initiatives, we’ve run two Biggest Loser contests, established an in-house gym, and hired a chef to prepare inexpensive healthy fare two days a week. The company currently hasnt changed the cost of insurance premiums based on smoker status, weight, etc. but there have been honest discussions about it. Of course there are those who choose not to partake in any of the initiatives and there is no penalty for not participating. There have been some complaints but mainly from “thin” people because they can’t really win a Biggest Loser contest. The Wellness Program drifted away with the departure of key committee members but luckily the benefits remain intact. Personally, I would love a system that rewarded those who follow a healthy lifestyle but that also didn’t punish those who don’t. Admittedly, it’s very hard to know who does what outside work but my lifestyle makes me feel good which is a reward in itself.

    1. Cat*

      Ugh, Biggest Loser contests are EXACTLY the kind of thing I think workplaces should stay away from. What a nightmare for anyone working at your company with, say, a history of eating disorders.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        … or people who just struggle with body image, or people who are happy with their weight (even if their weight is socially unacceptable) or people who don’t want to share personal issues with colleagues, etc. etc. etc.

        Something similar could be done respectfully, I think: Participants could choose “healthy” actions (walking to work, packing a lunch, sleeping eight hours a night, meditating, etc.) they commit to taking and get points for doing that.

        1. Cat*

          Yeah, that would be better. I mean, I personally wouldn’t participate because I’m an adult and capable of figuring out incentives for myself without being spoon fed it by my employer, but at least that wouldn’t be actively damaging.

        2. Emma*

          At OldJob and current job we have challenges like these. They focus on the behaviors, not the outcomes. Even in cases where it asked about preventive care, it just asked “Have you gone for your dental cleaning?/mammogram/annual physical?” and only looked for yes/no input. It relied on the honor system – but thankfully/not thankfully the input system was tedious so I doubt liars would have faked their activities for the “pleasure” of inputting data into this system.

          1. OP*

            I like that phrasing: “Focus on the behaviors, not the outcomes.” I am absolutely stealing that for the committee. I think I might need to start a document of all these great ideas to bring with me when this things starts.

        3. Natalie*

          Yeah, when my company did something like this it was based on number of miles walked, not weight loss. As it happened, the guy who won had lost a ton of weight, but I think he was on a personal weight loss program already and got lucky that it coincided with the walking contest. He won an iPod, which is pretty awesome.

          1. Chinook*

            Up north here, every spring there is a national “PartipAction” event where companies are encouraged to have employees walk a min. of 10,000 steps per day (or the equivalent biking, swimming, etc.). I have worked for some companies that participate and it was nice that, for once, if you already had a healthy lifestyle, you could still participate. Usually, the activities woudl give prizes for people who stopped smoking (but ignoring those who never started) or lost weight (ignoring those who either need to gain weight, are at a healthy weight or are unable to lose weight due to medical conditions).

            On the plus side, wearing a pedometer really does make you think about how much you actually move in a day.

        4. Windchime*

          My company’s Wellness Program is similar to what Victoria mentioned. Points are awarded for exercise, eating right and other healthy habits (sleeping, relaxing, flossing, etc). I admit that I’m not super excited about it, but I participate because it means that I get a small break on my health insurance premiums next year.

          I hate Biggest Loser competitions and stuff like that. Yeah, like I’m going to weigh in at work.

      2. Allison*

        Agreed! These competitions imply that everyone can stand to lose weight, which isn’t really true. Saying that weight loss is the path to better health is a gross oversimplification that can lead to real issues among employees. I know The Office is just a TV show, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone did feel encouraged to starve his or herself in order to help their team win.

        1. Anon*

          I’m recovering from an eating disorder, and I can guarantee you that a Biggest Loser competition would be triggering for me.

          No one at work knows about my history with eating disorders (nor do they need to be – I’ve been recovering a long time, it’s managed well by weekly nutritionist visits, and I’m a healthy weight), and my guess is that there are a lot of folks like me, who haven’t disclosed this information to their employers and would be harmed by a Biggest Loser competition.

          However, the initiatives that the OP suggested are great – having healthy snack options and making sure the office is properly staffed so everyone has good work/life balance are things that someone like me can participate in and benefit from. The focus should be on health, not weight.

        2. Kelly O*

          I was totally picturing that episode of The Office.

          Or, in The Devil Wears Prada when Emily Blunt’s character says “I’m one stomach bug away from my goal weight.”

        3. Bea W*

          For some of us with whacky metabolisms, better health includes weight gain or at the least consuming some disproportionately large amount of calories to keep level.

          My work introduced some online health program which I had started to participate in, but the bulk of what it suggested for me was absolutely horrible diet advice. It doesn’t take into account LDL/HDL levels when evaluating cholesterol results, so I got more horrible computer generated advice there. It was so annoying and not helpful that I never logged in again after that. I was totally turned off to it. It wasn’t a good fit for my needs.

          1. Rana*

            Agreed. I have found that 90% of nutritional websites out there assume that I am there because I want to lose weight, when actually what I’ve wanted to do is learn how to increase caloric intake in a healthy way, and how to be better at eating properly, period. But the default set-ups seem to discourage that sort of thing.

            1. TL*

              I have had that problem! My diet got extremely restricted and I am actually worried about nutritional intake but a lot of the advice is focused on keeping my weight down, even from the nutritionists I saw – without asking if that was a goal of mine. It’s not. I’ve been the same weight since high school and I’m quite happy with it.

          2. Jamie*

            And not to get too pedantic about it – but a lot of us aren’t cookie cutter for the “best practices” they send out.

            I don’t absorb iron properly – if you take heme iron out of my diet (red meat best source) I’m in trouble. Many, many people are healthier on a vegetarian diet or in cutting way down on red meat. Per one of the best hematologists in Chicago – I’m not.

            So many of those pamphlets tell you how to lower your cholesterol. I have ridiculous low cholesterol (bad) and perfect good cholesterol. I have crazy low blood pressure most of the time – I don’t need tips on how to lower that either. (I attribute my low blood pressure to all the fur baby stroking I do at home – they are soothing to almost a dangerous degree.)

            My point – if I get to making it – is that we should all take care of our own health and focus on preventative care…but while one size advice may fit most it doesn’t fit all and we need to keep that in mind.

            Walks at lunch are a fabulous way to get exercise…for many people. When my counts are low you can either get a walk out of me or I can work – I can’t do both because I don’t have the oxygen in my body for both.

            Very specific examples, but I’m one of a millions of people with their own specific examples. You can’t just force everyone into the same mold.

            1. fposte*

              Though I’ll devil’s advocate the devil’s advocate a little to say that you also won’t be able to find any initiative that will benefit every single employee, so you can’t hold out for that either.

              1. Jessa*

                NO you don’t have to hold out for that, but the programme has to be designed not to belittle, or peer pressure those employees for whom it is a terrible fit into feeling guilty or horrid about not participating.

                The programme needs not to be predicated on a 100% participation goal either.

                You can have something that doesn’t benefit everyone, because you’re right, statistically you can’t benefit everyone. It’s what the programme does, how it treats those it can’t fit that matters.

                If people with specific medical conditions, medically required diets, religious issues, medical restrictions, body image/eating disorders, etc. are made WORSE mentally or physically by their non participation, then the programme has a ginormous problem.

            2. Trixie Leitz*

              As another data point – people with certain bowel conditions need to eat a very low fibre diet to control their symptoms, which cuts out a lot of “healthy” foods. If they are at work and need a snack, and the only choices on offer are a bar of chocolate or an apple, they would be better off eating some of the chocolate. But there are people out there who would see them making that choice and judge them negatively for it.

        4. Lora*


          I’m a dancer–ballroom, Argentine tango and ballet. I dance anywhere from 6-12 hours/week depending on if I have an event or I’m teaching that month. I’m 5’5″ and size 0-2. I have to make a real effort to get enough nutrients in the right amounts (protein, calcium and green leafy things most days, carb-loading before an event), and it’s a hobby that is notorious for struggling with eating disorders. The last thing I need is to lose weight.

          My employer provided a nice perk for birthdays: on my birthday, I got a one-hour consultation with a personal trainer & dietitian. She emailed ahead of time asking what I wanted to focus on, and I said, balance and foot care. Apparently nobody had ever asked for help strengthening their toes, and she had to do quite a bit of research, but when we finally got together she had some really helpful ideas to improve my physical therapy results and balance gadgets I didn’t know existed. That was a GREAT thing, maybe you could suggest it?

            1. Jessa*

              As long as they vet the dietician. You do not want one who is going to automatically presume everyone even someone overweight wants to lose weight.

      3. Bea W*

        That’s what I was coming here to say to the LW – “Yes join and head off any “biggest loser” contests before it’s too late!” Losing weight and being healthy and adopting a more healthy lifestyle are not synonymous. There is too much focus on lose lose lose to be healthy, especially from the diet foods industry, and not enough on doing all the things that contribute to better health and wellness.

        I also feel like competing to see who can lose the most weight is even worse, because no matter what the intention of the people running the program, the focus then becomes losing as much weight as possible by any means necessary rather than losing it in a way that would be most beneficial for you and making lasting changes that will stick rather than quick fixes.

        I think workplaces can offer weight loss programs and incentives that would be much more beneficial and healthier than “Biggest Loser”. Although IMHO I think the bulk of the focus should be on making lasting changes in eating habits and physical activity, because once you make those changes, the weight loss takes care of itself. “Dieting” doesn’t work long term.

      4. Shannon313*

        Most of the staff here found it fun. We did it as two teams and for the second contest added a walking component with pedometers. I never thought about how this would affect someone with an eating disorder, and those are fair points. However, there was a lot of camaraderie developed among teammates and there was absolutely no pressure to join the contest. We advertised it and left a sign up sheet. I guess I’m in the minority, but I don’t see anything wrong with a friendly contest that’s legitimately voluntary (no undercurrent of pressure or ramifications if you didn’t join).

        1. Anonymous*

          Perhaps revamp the program from Biggest Loser to something that embraces and supports all healthy goals. For example, men who lift are often left out of these because they’re trying to GAIN (muscle) weight. And as a female lifter, I realize that such gains are less likely for me, but I’d love to be able to play by setting a “total weight lifted” or “increased weight lifted” goal. Maybe make the game focus on who best meets a quarterly and ambitious (but healthy) personal goal of any sort.

        2. Anna*

          Advertising a weight loss contest in and of itself is problematic for a lot of people with histories of eating disordered behavior. And having camaraderie in the workplace that one has to engage in weight loss dieting in order to join in, well, that basically excludes a lot of people from office bonding activities. I really think you should rethink this program.

          (I also suspect that, sooner or later, a workplace is going to end up on the receiving end of a big lawsuit about this, either for discrimination or because someone participated and hurt themselves. And whether it’s a winning lawsuit or not, being the defendant in a lawsuit is really unpleasant for a company.)

        3. Mike C.*

          How do you not see any of the harm in these activities when lots of different people have told you what that harm is?

    2. Victoria Nonprofit*

      It’s literally not possible to “reward” people who do some things without “punishing” those who do not. If you give a reward to people with Characteristic A, you are punishing people (via the denial of a reward) without Characteristic A.

      1. KellyK*

        Very true. I find it really grating when, for example, companies talk about “rewarding” people for completing some wellness survey when what they really mean is that the insurance costs more for people who don’t participate.

        You can sort of get around this by picking rewards that are rewarding specifically to the people who *want* to do the thing you’re rewarding. For example, a discounted gym membership isn’t a reward that someone who doesn’t want to go to the gym will have much interest in, so the people who aren’t participating aren’t likely to feel punished.

      2. Kerr*

        Yes and yes. And all the things you said in your previous comment, too. That kind of a workplace culture could actually be seriously unhealthy for a lot of people.

        It’s not really a business’s place to reward or punish healthy behavior. (And who’s to say what’s healthy for any one person?) Offering healthy lunches and snacks, flexible schedules or better hours so employees can exercise or cook dinner? Great. Having my employer getting all personal with my eating and exercise habits? Just…no.

        1. Joey*

          Why isn’t it their business? Your health is directly tied to their costs….unless your in the very small minority that pays 100%of your insurance premiums.

          1. KellyK*

            So, if your company wants access to all of your medical records and wants to put you on a specific exercise program and diet, you’re good with that?

            It’s not their business because it’s the employee’s *body.* There is literally nothing more private or more personal.

      3. Shannon313*

        If you give $200 to employees who successfully quit smoking, how it is punishing a smoker? It’s not like you’re taking the $200 from the smoker. I don’t smoke and I didn’t feel punished by the inability to earn the $200. In fact I completely supported those trying to kick the habit!

        1. TL*

          I would be kinda offended by not having the chance to earn $200 while other did, from my workplace, for something that is not work-related. I need that $200.

          1. Joey*

            Would you be offended by your insurance costs going sky high because other people had smoking related health problems and kept smoking?

            1. Cat*

              The problem is this is true of tons of things. Should you also disqualify marathon runners, rock climbers, people who vacation in tropical countries, and women of childbearing age from your perks? All of those people could incur higher insurance costs.

            2. TL*

              I do actually have huge issues with young people smoking due to exactly that issue. I am all for encouraging not smoking, but monetary rewards from the company I work for is not the only way to do that.

          2. Bea W*

            As a non-smoker, I feel like I’m already doing the right thing. Why don’t I also deserve $200? The message to me is that I am losing out because I’m not doing something that is bad for my health. If you’re going to reward people for not smoking, then you have to reward all people who have made a commitment not to smoke, whether they quit now or are already smoke free.

            1. Bobby Digital*

              I’m a smoker and I think you’re exactly right.

              My question: how do they verify that the quitters have actually quit? Or that the “quitters” were actually smokers to start with? (We don’t have these initiatives so the process is somewhat foreign to me.)

    3. Chris80*

      The Biggest Loser contests sound awful to me! Although, I will admit that nearly all workplace wellness programs sound awful to me. Much like team-building games, it just puts things in the workplace that aren’t at all related to work, and that rarely seems to turn out well!

    4. Meg*

      omg please don’t do Biggest Loser contests. Weight loss is not always healthy, and it runs the risk of promoting some really bad practices. Those “thin” people that are complaining have it exactly right.

  4. PPK*

    Pushing for a budget for stand up desks would be awesome. Or other ergonomics. For a brief time, we had an ergonomics lab where they ordered several fancy mice, keyboards, etc. The theory was that you could try a few out, find one that you liked, then order one — instead of just guessing, ordering something and not liking it. This “lab” (small hallway with doors) has since become an unsupported wasteland, but it was a good idea when it started.

    Another handy (cheap) thing that my site did was create a site map with suggested walking paths and mileage.

    1. anonymous*

      Wow, that ‘lab’ sounds like a really fantastic idea! It’s a shame that it didn’t really keep going.

  5. COT*

    I’d love a wellness committee that implemented ideas like OP’s and Alison’s. Other non-awful ideas could include (optional) employee walking clubs, rec leagues, stress management or fitness “lunch and learns,” selecting healthy foods for company meetings/events, bike-to-work amenities like showers and bike racks, hosting a CSA pickup onsite, etc.

    But most of all, I like OP’s approach to encouraging basic work-life balance so employees can make their own healthy choices on their own time. That’s not even subversive; it’s common sense. Please be that voice!

  6. Ruffingit*

    I like that you want to join the committee to make a positive impact. While you’re at it, I would suggest that wellness also includes mental health and perhaps there should be some initiatives for that. If there’s no EAP at your office, maybe you can get one or perhaps there can be a company distributed list of mental health providers that the insurance covers or whatever. I just hate to see mental health ignored in these wellness initiatives, which it often is.

    1. COT*

      Great suggestion. If there is already an EAP, maybe a little promotional campaign to educate people about the services it provides? I bet a lot of people don’t really understand their EAP or even remember they have one.

  7. Katie the Fed*

    I would push this:

    Put fresh fruit and veggies out for people to snack on. We talk a big game where I work about eating healthy and whatnot, then it’s bake sale after bake sale and krispy kreme fundraisers to raise money for various things. I have no willpower around delicious baked goods, so I started just putting a bowl of fresh fruit on my desk that people could freely help themselves to. It’s very popular and other people bring in things to add.

    1. AnonHR*

      Agreed- our wellness program is all well and good, but every all-staff lunch means pizza and cookies, which is not helping our initiatives any…

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      HALLELUJAH. My office has nothing but crap in the vending machine, and there aren’t many options for good-for-you snacks in the area beyond the standard bananas and apples. I would die of joy if someone started putting fruit out.

    3. kelly*

      I think that having people bring in fresh fruits and veggies is a wonderful idea. For people like myself for whom the whole concept of exercise isn’t easy, the easiest way to lose weight is to make adjustments in my diet. As someone with a notorious sweet tooth, I’ve started bring fresh fruit, veggies, and cheese instead of baked goods for snacks. I know the last option isn’t the best, but I’d rather splurge on good cheese than cookies.

      Another tactic is going away from pizza, fried chicken, etc for all staff meetings. Subway has some healthier options, as does Qdoba and Chipotle. Last retail job only provided catered food for us on black Friday and if we made a certain monthly goal. It was frustrating to have the catered lunch be pizza or fried chicken because it was cheaper than getting something healthier. I love pizza but it has to be deep dish and that’s on the spendy side. I’m not a fan of potlucks because I’m a bit finicky of an eater and have some food preferences that don’t always go over too well in potlucks. Plus, it’s an easy way for a workplace to “provide” food without spending the money.

    4. Shoshie*

      One of my friend’s workplace bought into a fruit CSA program! So they have local, fresh, organic fruit out for everyone. I’m so jealous.

      Oooh! Or a workplace could be a pickup site for a CSA.

      Really, I just love CSAs.

  8. OP*

    OP here. I’m glad this doesn’t sound crazy! I mentioned it sort of as a joke to a few coworkers, and they were like, “No seriously you should do that.” And Alison’s point is true–if it does turn out to be a waste of time, I can always back out.

    Since I’ve started thinking about this seriously my first thought was to start by asking people what they want rather than just throwing things at them to see what sticks. I’m hoping that I can have some impact if I try to get other members to have evidence that whatever things they are suggesting actually work. But then again I’m very much a quantitative/logical person and I know not everyone is.

    But back to my point, please keep the suggestions for good wellness initiatives coming! I hadn’t thought of ergonomic furniture/stand up desks. In fact we’re moving to a new location next summer, so this would actually be a great time to bring up getting new furniture.

    1. PEBCAK*

      Here’s an off-the-wall idea: have a few company bikes/helmets on hand if someone wants to run a quick errand on their lunch.

      1. COT*

        Or if you happen to work in a big metro area with bike-sharing, give discounted memberships or free passes.

        Another good wellness initiative in my city is the “guaranteed ride home” program for people who bike, walk, or take public transit to work. They can request reimbursement for up to two cab rides a year in case they fall sick, have a midday emergency, get stuck in a snowstorm, etc. It’s a way to give people more peace of mind about going carless. That would be a cool program to offer internally.

    2. Cathy*

      Please don’t do what my husband’s company did. The employee and any dependents who want to be covered on employer health plans don’t just have to fill out a survey, they also have to go in to his office and have body measurements as well as blood taken by some nurses who come in for this event. Those who choose not to participate get access to only the worst of the health plans they offer. I really hate this!

      The survey is just annoying, and I would deal with that, but giving up my own work time to commute to his office and have them take my blood just so I can choose the more flexible insurance plan really pisses me off.

      They have other stuff, like discounts on insurance for not smoking; an on-site gym; a program with Virgin Health Miles where you can earn gift cards for carrying a pedometer and walking enough steps per day — but the whole taking my blood thing just makes me resent the program to the point that I don’t want to get involved.

      1. OP*

        Yeah, it’s this sort of thing that gave me the idea in the first place. Right now they are doing the blood/biometric screenings but it’s optional, though this year they are pushing it big time and people are already starting to resent it.

        The other problem is that once I start talking about these initiatives I start ranting about how this stuff is not the business of my employer at all, but they make it their business because they pay for our health insurance, which is another reason why the health insurance system in the US is so messed up (even with “Obamacare”), and why is single-payer such a nonstarter…then all of a sudden I’m ranting about politics at work and you know how that goes. Also my HR department can’t really do much about the political climate in the US.

        1. Lore*

          Ours is technically optional, but somehow information is being shared behind the scenes and it totally creeps me out. I got an email from the wellness program–which I have never signed up for or participated in–congratulating me on getting a physical. I spoke to my insurance company, the wellness program, and my HR department, and there is apparently no way to opt out of this data-sharing. If you want to make it mandatory, make it mandatory…but I should still have control over my health information being shared between parties.

          1. KellyK*

            Wow…I would expect that to be a HIPAA violation (I suppose it’s somewhere in the fine print of the insurance company’s privacy statement). That’s ridiculous.

            1. Lore*

              Their argument when I raised that very point was that they’re not sharing the results of the exam, just the fact that I had one. But that’s a very, very slippery slope: what if they shared the fact that I went to an infertility specialist or had a pregnancy test?

              1. KellyK*

                If I were you, I would be looking at the specific HIPAA wording to see if that was kosher. Because you’re right about the slippery slope.

        2. WorkingMom*

          For what it’s worth, there are a plethora of laws that protect employers from knowing results of these types of biometric screenings. The data is used to give a “big picture” to the employer and help them design a benefit plan that meets their population’s needs best, and in the long term, help lower premiums for plan members.

        3. Ask a Manager* Post author

          OP, another thing you can do is to be the voice who says “this stuff is an invasion of privacy and many people will be/are super uncomfortable with this.” And if they pshaw you, suggest they survey people anonymously to find out.

      2. the gold digger*

        The blood test is why I opted out of my company’s program, too. Mostly because I pass out when I have blood drawn, but also because it is none of their darn business what’s in my blood.

        1. Loose Seal*

          If we opt out of ours, it costs us an extra $150 per month in premiums. So even though I’d like to fight the good fight for privacy, my pocketbook can’t stand it.

    3. annie*

      Besides weight (which has a lot of other issues tied up into it that you can’t always change), it seems that science tells us that tobacco use is the other major indicator for high risk of common diseases. I think some meaningful support for people who want to stop smoking would be helpful, such as a reimbursement of that nicotine gum or even just a list of local support groups or helplines that your committee would research. In fact you could expand that to a list of alcohol or substance abuse quitlines or help groups too.

      I always find it hilarious/sad when I have coworkers who are total gym rats and then smoke twice a day. Or the ones who start a new fad diet every three months and yo yo like nuts. Sustainable lifestyle changes are really the only way to achieve sustainable health.

    4. Girasol*

      We get invasive questionnaires and they seem to have no purpose. After I take the health questionnaire a system auto-generates one email that says I should eat 5 servings of vegetables a day; my answer of 7 was wrong and I should try harder. Twenty minutes of invasive questions and that’s all? I wish someone would ask what we could change at work that would enable us to take better control of our own health issues. How about telecommuting a day or two a week so we can put the saved commuting time to exercise? Instead of posters that suggest we take a walk at lunch break, how about changing the culture so that people don’t feel they’re risking layoff if they don’t work through lunch? How about addressing bullying? Those are more appropriate wellness actions for an employer to take than prying into peoples’ weight and blood tests.

  9. llamathatducks*

    Go OP! It’ll be awesome if you are able to steer the initiative in the right direction.

    I don’t have any positive advice for you, but I recently read this article about some of the dangers of wellness initiatives that focus too much on weight:

    So I really encourage you to give that a read, and remember (and remind your fellow committee members) that not everyone is well served by losing weight, not everyone CAN lose weight (let alone in a way that’s both physically and mentally healthy), and incentivizing people to lose weight can have pretty disastrous effects sometimes.

  10. KellyK*

    I really like this idea, and would like to put a word in for *not* doing weight loss competitions or tying insurance costs to weight loss. Because things like this happen:

    (The first is a woman with an eating disorder coming back to a big weight-loss contest in her office. The second is a man with diabetes going off his insulin to meet his employer’s weight loss goal.)

    1. anonymous*

      Another good point against tying insurance costs to weight loss is this – it is cheaper to eat unhealthy than it is to eat healthy. So if you make people over a certain weight pay more for their insurance — well, the easiest budget to crunch is often the grocery budget when you’re tight on funds! So if Suzy Q Overweight suddenly is paying twice as much for her insurance, it’s very possible that’s actually going to make it HARDER for her to lose weight, as well as, you know, actually take care of herself nutritionally. Jack her insurance, now meat’s out of the budget and she’s anemic, good job!

    2. Chinook*

      I read that article and my eyes popped at my high blood pressure being equal to an unhealthy lifestyle. I am active, make most of my food from scratch, never owned a salt shaker, have a healthy weight and a family history going back 4 generations of women who have high blood pressure starting in their 30’s. Mine went from normal to high in less than 6 months when I got the flu and never went back down. I would be quite angry if I was penalized for something that is very much not lifestyle related. In my mind, it would be like looking at someone with Type 1 Diabetes and saying they need to lose weight and exercise so they don’t need insulin.

  11. Emma*

    I worked on the wellness committee for OldJob. One member, at her previous OldJob, said how the company gave you time on-the-clock to visit the corporate gym. So you didn’t have to use your lunch break! You essentially got to trade 30 minutes of working for the company for 30 minutes for bettering yourself. Since they had swipe card access to that facility, it was possible to log and audit who was using that time properly. Now, I suppose you *could* go and stand around in the gym for 30 minute, but I imagine that would become boring really quickly so folks would be bound to find something active to do during that time.

    I don’t know if/how this policy discriminated against people who have limited mobility – I don’t know what that gym was like, it would have been quite ADA-friendly. I think this is still a fabulous idea, though, and wish more companies did it. Unfortunately, OldJob at which myself and that coworker were wellness committee members did not adopt this gym program.

  12. Carrie in Scotland*

    I recently attended a staff conference and we had a talk from 2 gentlemen from the Holocaust Museum. They quoted the famous quote from Martin Niemoller “they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a Jew and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.”
    And I joined a Trade Union because my org needs people to speak out for people (like us admins and everyone else as things are terrible after a re-structure) so OP, please do it!!

  13. Sarah*

    I think the OP should offer real solutions to improve the health and wellness, especially work/life balance, but don’t come off snide. There are surely some people that are excited about these types of things and you don’t want to be the negative Nancy (or worse) of the group. Instead, contribute/start off a productive dialogue of real employee needs.

    1. Another Emily*

      I agree. OP, don’t think of yourself as a subversive wellness committee member. Think of yourself as the best damn wellness committee member ever! Because with your logical, evidence-based, respectful approach where you won’t invade people’s privacy, that’s exactly what you’re going to be.

      You don’t have to subvert anything, you can steer the wellness committee into a positive and healthy direction.

  14. Coelura*

    And please keep in mind that some of the ideas really are required by the health insurance company. The health surveys are required to keep premiums down for everyone. So some of the wellness initiatives are a tradeoff to avoid premium increases. So please seek to understand the reasoning behind the ideas you don’t like before you dismiss them out of hand. Many of us are willing to fill out health surveys in order to reduce our premiums. In my case, the health questionnaire plus blood tests reduce my premium by $600 each year. That’s worth it to me.

    1. OP*

      Yes, I understand that but find it frustrating. I feel, for any company, if the goal of the “wellness committee” is just to check a box to reduce healthcare premiums, then just say that to employees. If the goal is to actually get people to make healthier choices, then don’t implement pointless and invasive things that don’t actually get that done.

      I would also like to think that we should push back if the insurance company is requiring specific stupid, invasive initiatives in order to offer lower premiums. Because not only are a lot of these things annoying, they don’t actually increase health. But I realize that pushing back on the insurance company is probably outside the scope of the wellness committee :-\

    2. Seattle Writer Girl*

      Yeah, I had to do this once at an old job and they were upfront about it being required by the insurance company to keep our premiums low. At the time I was 22 and had a BMI of 21.5. However, that particular year I had broken up a long-term, live-in relationship, moved homes (due to the break-up) and had my mom visit twice (major stress!). I’m sure I scored off the charts on the mental health screening section.

      Because of this, I was enrolled, without my permission, into phone consultations with some wellness agency that would call me constantly while at work (always a different Consultant each time) and start the phone call with stuff like, “Most people use our service to lose weight. How are you feeling about your weight?” Again, did I mention I had a BMI of 21.5 at the time and was going to the gym 5x/week? I was not the only one to receive these types of calls and after several months, the company finally stopped calling.

      It would be one thing if the consulting firm actually used my survey results to provide targeted help for my specific issues. But just selling off my name and phone number to some random telemarketer? Seriously uncool….

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        In 2001, my then-employer was one of the first big companies to try a wellness initiative. At the time, I was preparing for my black belt test, working out 3 hours a day, and was in the best shape of my life. And I STILL didn’t qualify for the company fitness rebate!

        They only gave credit for going to group classes at a gym so that there was a record of your attendance, not for running or doing your own thing at the gym. But they didn’t give credit for martial arts classes, because “they’re too dangerous” (which is not actually true if you look at the research and statistics). After 3 hours of running, weights/strength work, bag work, and sparring, I somehow couldn’t find a fourth hour to attend Jazzercise class or something.

        In later years, they loosened it up and let you log activity on the honor system. I guess you could cheat, but I never encountered anyone who admitted it. I DID hear a lot of people saying they were going for a brisk walk at lunch “to get my fourth workout of the week”. I will admit that once or twice, I was doing calesthenics in front of the TV on Saturday night. “If I finish before midnight, it counts!”

  15. Prima Facie*

    OP will have to be very careful about how and what they suggest. Maybe I’m too cynical but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if management noted that you were the one who didn’t agree with every initiative and held it against you.

    1. OP*

      Luckily the director of my department loves me (because I’m awesome, ha) and she was one of the people whom I mentioned this as a joke to and she responded “no seriously you should do that.” The wellness committee is run by HR, but I can’t see how any repercussions would filter through her. She’s an “awesome hard-ass” kind of like a certain advice columnist I know.

  16. John*

    Rarely do I disagree with AAM (I think you’re brilliant!). But I can tell you that health insurance costs are growing at or near double-digits. It’s unsustainable for companies or employees.

    Many of chronic conditions that drain the system are preventable. Therefore, employers have to raise awareness and improve education and access to preventative care.

    Five years ago I would have scoffed at the things our company is doing now (I had a biometric screening this morning and am required to fill out a medical questionnaire). I am waking up to the necessity. And, as someone who takes care of himself, I should welcome these efforts because we’re all sharing the burdens of poor health.

    1. OP*

      I agree. However, how many of these initiatives actually result in improved health outcomes? THAT is what I take issue with. Does sending emails with “healthy eating tips” actually cause people to eat healthier? Does putting up posters soliciting people for Weight Watchers actually lead to people being healthier–not thinner, mind you, but healthier? Does starting a “running club” cause people to be healthier? And I mean that sincerely–the answer may be yes, these things do make people healthier. But I’m skeptical that those are the best uses of our resources to reach the desired outcomes. A running club does no good if you are too swamped with work to join in; maybe the company should spend money increasing headcount in that department rather than berating them because they don’t go running enough.

      1. John*

        Sadly, I think the approaches you describe are pretty much the only means available to employers.

        What might work? People who ate a certain way or refused to exercise would have to pay much higher premiums. But how can you begin to determine that? And how would people react to that?

        It’s really thorny.

        1. Victoria Nonprofit*

          I’m not a paragon of health. I have never smoked, and I happen to be young, currently able-bodied, and without any major health problems. But other than that, I’m a pretty bad example of how to live healthfully: I’m overweight, eat way too much processed food and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables, I don’t exercise on a regular schedule, I don’t get enough sleep, I experience a lot of stress, etc.

          The variables that could genuinely affect those behaviors? A lot of them are well within the control of my employer, and nearly all of them stem from too much work. I don’t cook at home as much as I should (and when I do, I rely on packaged products too often) because I work 10+ hours a day. I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables because I travel nearly 50% and it’s hard to eat well at restaurants. I don’t exercise enough because when I get home I’m exhausted from scrambling to do everything I need to do, but I don’t get enough sleep because it’s hard to cram everything else into the few hours before the end of the day and a reasonable bedtime.

          Some of this is just the nature of my demanding, interesting job, and I get that. But real talk? What’s going to get me to change my bad health behaviors is not charging me more – it’s changing the way work works so those things can more easily be a part of my life.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            “What’s going to get me to change my bad health behaviors is not charging me more – it’s changing the way work works so those things can more easily be a part of my life.”
            Anyone who has tried eating a salad for lunch knows you cannot eat enough salad in a half hour to keep yourself full for the rest of the afternoon. (This includes walking to and from the break room and hitting the bathroom- a half hour is not enough time.)

            Genuinely worried about my health? Get my boss to stop cussing at me. Seriously, knotted up stomachs do not process food well. Digestive track issues set off a host of health problems.

            How about allowing me to go home in time to get 8 hours sleep if I chose to? Don’t ask me if I slept. Just give me the time so the option is open to me.

            If you want to do something helpful bring in guest speakers talking about alternative medicine so people can learn about options. Don’t make them go to the presentation if they do not want to go.

            Go to the grocery store and fix some healthy options. Label what the foods are. Set the foods out for people to try IF they WANT to. Many people eat 9-10 different foods and nothing else. These few foods come in different costumes (think pasta) but it’s the same thing over and over. If people can try a new food at no cost to them they might find something new they actually like.

            How about water? I know so many companies that do not even allow employees to have a water bottle in their work area. Then I hear “My lips are so dry and I don’t know why.” hmmm. Water is absolutely vital to good health.

            I could go on and on. There are so many basic things that can be done without embarrassing people or forcing them to do things they do not want to do.

            1. coconutwater*

              Oh I agree with what you have written here!

              Also,I think the Number 1 way to reduce health care costs is for the employer to lower stress for the employees. There are so many ways an employer could help and some do not cost additional money at all.

              Getting rid of Bullies and following policies and procedures already established to create safe workplaces….. would be a good place to start.

            2. anastasia*

              Yes, all of this!

              I would add, pay employees a living wage and do not keep cutting their pay, so that they can exercise or cook healthy meals at home rather than needing to get a second (or third!) job to make ends meet after cuts take effect. I exercised fairly regularly until I had to take on extra jobs and freelance gigs.

              The only time I had to exercise was late at night…. but whoops, we’re supposed to get 8 hours sleep a night too so I guess that’s not going to work!

              (I realize that this is way out of the scope of what a wellness committee can change, but I bet I am not the only one who’s experienced this.)

        2. Broke Philosopher*

          Actually, making health insurance LESS affordable to people will likely have a detrimental impact. Much of our spending is due to the fact that people don’t get enough preventive care, because they are uninsured or underinsured. Some uninsured people have to wait until they are extremely sick to seek care, and taxpayers end up picking up the check. Making preventive care and regular check-ups cheap/free to everyone would go much farther than penalizing people who don’t eat enough kale.

          1. Anonymous*

            “Making preventive care and regular check-ups cheap/free to everyone”

            Health care is NOT free. Someone somewhere has to pay for it.

            1. Bea W*

              I assume Broke Philosopher meant free/cheap to the user such as reducing or eliminating co-pays for routine physicals, screening tests, vaccinations, smoking cessation aids, etc. When it costs as much to see a doctor when you are well as when you are sick, it’s not much of an incentive to use preventive care. People will just wait until they fall sick in hopes of saving money.

            2. Broke Philosopher*

              Right, and our system is way more expensive both for taxpayers and health insurance consumers. Making preventive health care free/cheap FOR THE HEALTH CARE CONSUMER will save everyone money in the long run, because actually sick people cost way, way more money than well people who are keeping themselves from getting sick(er).

      2. Joey*

        Here’s the thing though. There is countless data out there that indicates that wellness initiatives work. Take my company. Over 10000 employees. Our medical costs gradually went down once we implemented them. Individual claims went down- correlated to preventative care., exercise, weight loss, smoking cessation, etc. how can you arbitararily argue that they don’t work? If you just don’t like them that’s one thing but its near impossible to argue that they’re ineffective.

        1. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Huh. That’s not been my impression. The research I’ve read (a series of papers in Health Affairs) is show mixed results, with a lot of the cost savings coming from cost shifting.

          (“Although these incentives and disincentives do prompt workers to participate in wellness programs, the evidence is mixed on whether the result is real improvements in health outcomes. And to date, there have been no published, independent studies on how changes in premiums or cost sharing affect the health outcomes of workers.”)

        2. OP*

          Not impossible at all, actually. I think you’re setting me up as a strawman here and characterizing my opinion as “all wellness initiatives are awful!” I’m not saying that a wellness initiative is by definition bad. But you also can’t argue that all of them are good either. If the people running the committee have substantive data that these specific initiatives improve health of employees, I won’t be against it just because it’s not something I like.

          But if we must have one to satisfy insurance mandates, let’s at least have one that (1) offers things employee actually want and will use, and (2) can show that it quantitatively improves measurable health factors. Show me the evidence that filling up people’s inboxes with recipes and diet advice actually leads to healthier employees and I’ll go with it. But I’m not going to hold me breath waiting for that data.

          I also reject the idea that “people who refused to exercise would pay higher premiums.” The whole point of insurance is that you have a variety of risk levels in the pool of insured, and the premiums paid by those who do not use it cover the costs of the people who do. Not just health insurance–this is the concept behind car insurance, home insurance, etc. That is why you can’t get a private company to offer flood insurance; by definition everyone in the insurance pool would be making claims at the same time. You are paying for the insurance company to take the (financial) risk away from you.

          1. Joey*

            Sure, but what do you do when those costs are spiraling out of control. Your only options are to raise premiums and/or drive down costs. If companies relied on only price increases even more people would not be able to afford coverage. Look, I’m all for improving wellness programs, but if you arbitrarily come in and say “this is a joke. Send us home early if you want us to be healthy”. You will get nowhere. And I’ll respond to the below comment as well. You’ll get much farther giving it a chance and wait for the data to come in that proves those specific initiatives are not worth the ROI. Just barking that they suck and don’t work doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight.

            1. OP*

              I think you’re either misunderstanding or setting up a strawman here. I was a little flippant in my initial question to Alison, but I certainly wouldn’t rush into the meeting “barking that they suck.” I don’t personally have a problem with professional disagreement.

              And I understand (and acknowledged in my question) that the push for this comes from insurance companies, and that they offer financial incentives to have these sorts of things. And beyond that, I think that supporting people in making healthy choices is a good thing. I just don’t believe that the method many of these programs use actually accomplish that goal. Like I said elsewhere, maybe you are lucky enough to work at a company with a reasonable wellness program and you don’t realize that many places the wellness program is a joke.

              And if the insurance company is coming in and specifically saying “we will reduce your premiums if you send these cheesy newsletters with recipes and diet tips to all of your employees” why can’t my HR department tell us that, rather than pretend that they are sending it out because they think that the biggest barrier a group of accomplished adults has to exercising is that they do not know that exercising is good for them.

          2. KellyK*

            I also reject the idea that “people who refused to exercise would pay higher premiums.” The whole point of insurance is that you have a variety of risk levels in the pool of insured, and the premiums paid by those who do not use it cover the costs of the people who do. Not just health insurance–this is the concept behind car insurance, home insurance, etc.


            1. Anonymous*

              Pooling risk does not equate to the same rate for everyone purchasing a particular type of insurance. You do understand that car insurance, home insurance, life insurance, etc. rates are NOT the same for all policyholders, right? They vary by the amount of risk. An urban teen male Mercedes driver with an accident record does NOT pay the same rate as a suburban 50-year old female with a Ford Fiesta. Car insurance companies give discounts to people who have anti-theft devices (VIN inscription, alarm systems, Lojack, etc.) analogous to the notion of preventative care. A 60 year old does NOT pay the same price for a life insurance policy as a 20-year old. Rates often vary for smokers vs. non-smokers.

        3. OP*

          And to follow up, what are the specific wellness initiatives that your company implemented? Maybe your company implemented a well-thought-out, respectful wellness initiative that treated employees like adults and simply did its best to remove barriers to health. But you may not realize that not all wellness initiative are like that (read the link Alison posted in the answer). A lot of them are full of time-wasting activities that no one uses and that insult the intelligence of the people they are supposed to be helping.

            1. fposte*

              But if there are programs that have demonstrably effective outcomes and programs that demonstrably don’t, why not go with the ones that do? Just because somebody somewhere lost weight on the olive oil and grapefruit diet doesn’t justify adopting it as a wellness program.

                1. Cat*

                  The point people are making is tht if you can’t show a given program works, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. And the costs aren’t just financial. You’re also going to be alienating too performers who have the option of going someplace that treats them like an adult.

                2. llamathatducks*

                  Joey – what, do you not believe that people can be top performers in their work without also being very healthy? And thin, since lots of wellness programs focus disproportionately on weight (to the detriment of health, sometimes)? AND willing to share private data?

                  People have strengths and weaknesses. People also have differing opinions on privacy. You cannot predict the quality of someone’s work based on how well they fit the parameters of a particular wellness program.

                3. Joey*

                  I’m not saying that. I’ve just never heard anyone say “oh, I was going to work for you until I found out you had wellness incentives.” Or “I’m leaving the company because you implemented wellness programs.”

                4. Cat*

                  A single thing doesn’t usually make or break a given job. But cumulatively, they do. Generally, top performers have options. People with options seek out jobs where they have the ability to do their work without undue intrusions into their ability to do it or to otherwise live their lives. There’s a reason companies that depend on hiring skilled, in-demand workers don’t usually do things like demand doctor’s notes after illness or require strict clocking in every day. Those things are going to alienate workers who have the option of working somewhere that treats them like adults. Wellness initiatives are another thing that risks doing that.

                  Would I leave a job over Biggest Loser contests? No. But it’s going to make me less happy and comfortable about being there, and when the next exciting opportunity comes up, I’m going to look at it that much more seriously. And the more busy body wellness initiatives you try to put on me, the more pronounced that effect is going to be.

          1. NutellaNutterson*

            If you can go in with some good information and data on what actually works in terms of improving employee physical and mental health, then you have a chance of really making some awesome improvements. I recall the maxim that you need to have five positive things for every negative in order to be viewed positively. So if you can identify workable alternatives, you won’t be considered the complainer.

            A while back there were a couple Freakonomics episodes about smoking and obesity – they might be worth a listen (or read the transcripts) for some thoughts about options and potential impacts.

          2. Bea W*

            Out food service provider has had some great ones that promote being more aware of what you are eating and teaching people how to make choices that make balanced and more healthy meals.

            1. Education about building a balanced meal using the “My Plate” concept. They put out a lot of educational materials and posters with good visuals demonstrating how much of the plate each type of food should take up. Twice a week they would offer a entrees that followed this concept and gave out punch cards. When you purchased 10 of the entrees, you got a free meal. The food was good and there was a variety of different entrees. As someone who does not need to lose weight but needs more help in learning how to make healthier choices, I loved this program.

            2. “550” stations. These were stations set up on a certain cuisine theme where you can build your own plate that would total 550 calories. The meals were built by choosing foods from each category – protein, veggies, grains, etc. It was a practical illustration of what kind of foods fell into each category and the size of a typical serving. I like this even though I’m not restricting calories. 550 is actual a reasonable amount of calories in a meal – not too few, not too many – I felt like it was encouraging people to eat healthy but to also eat enough to be sustaining.

            3. The color coded salad bar – the tongs are green, yellow, or red. The colors are to help people know the basic nutritional make-up of the food. Green tong foods tend to be things like fresh veggies – lower in fat/sugars/sodium/calories. These are foods you can use in bigger portions. Yellow tongs fell in the middle, and red tongs denoted foods that were recommended in smaller portions.

            4. Pairing with MyFitnessPal – MFP is a great free app that helps people track exercise and dietary habits. All menu items were available in the MFP database, and menus are posted with bar codes that can be scanned by MFP to find them in the database.

            I appreciate how the food service focuses on making people aware healthy eating and giving them the tools to make better choices rather than weight loss or focusing on one particular type of diet. They give you information that you need to make the food choices that work for you. If I need more red tong foods, I know which ones those are and can help myself. It’s not about policing habits, but allowing people to make informed choices and respecting their ability to do so. No one gets dinged for choosing a brownie over a banana, but you end up with a lot of people who will choose a banana because of being more aware and having a healthy choice available to them.

        4. KellyK*

          Have you *ever* seen a study where more than a tiny percentage of people lost a significant amount of weight and were able to keep it off for five years? Because I haven’t. If you’ve seen such a study, please share it.

          A lot of “weight loss” efforts could more easily be called “weight cycling” efforts. Without evidence of long-term effectiveness, tying employee benefits to weight loss is asking employees to risk their health for a short-term gain.

      3. Anonymous*

        One thing to push for would be to keep interventions evidence based, by which I mean keep asking whether there are formal studies to support the use of any given intervention, preferably randomized controlled trials or systematic reviews. If you have access to a medical school or an academic health centre, go and talk to the librarian about how to search for the best evidence. On line see PubMed, the Trip (Turning Research into Practice) database, the CRD (Centre for Research and Dissemination) database – off the top of my head.

      4. fposte*

        I am so in love with the way you put this. You are absolutely the person who should be on this committee. And every workplace wellness committee.

    2. KellyK*

      Totally disagree. My health is my business, and my employer is not entitled to my personal medical information or to make demands about how I manage my health. If the cost of insurance is a problem, then they can (and do) pass added costs onto me. They can also shop around for better deals, lobby for insurance reform, or choose not to offer insurance as a benefit (yes, this will cost them good employees and will cost them money based on the ACA, but it’s an option they have).

      It’s very easy for people who are naturally pretty healthy to think that’s all due to their “taking good care of themselves,” but the truth is that lifestyle factors are only part of the equation, and genetic factors also play a major role.

  17. Joey*

    No no no. That doesn’t sound like the intention of that committee(at least right now)- to advocate against initiatives that are already in place. It sounds like they’re looking for wellness cheerleaders. If you’re not one wait until they ask for participation in a group that’s designed to give feedback on what they like and dislike about your wellness program.

    Otherwise you’ll be undermining what they’ve already decided they’re going to implement.

    But here’s the important part, whatever your feeling are on wellness know that they’re ultimately driven to drive down costs. So whatever you’re going to recommend won’t get a whole lot of attention unless it meets that goal.

    1. OP*

      “Otherwise you’ll be undermining what they’ve already decided they’re going to implement.”

      Yes, that is why I called it “subversive.” That is exactly what my goal is, if what they want to implement is pointless, invasive, insulting, and ineffective.

    2. TL*

      My company offers a lot of healthcare benefits and they’re really good about it; much is low-pressure, nothing beyond inclusion of tips and resources in the weekly updates emails and an occasional update email for a specific program. The health initiative reward is a $25 gift card to a local grocery chain that is priced similar to Wal-Mart, so it’s nice but nothing you feel super slighted about. They do add charges for smoking, but I agree with that given the field of healthcare we’re in.

      They’re probably getting insurance discounts and they pay all the premiums for their employees but I think a lot of it has to do with wanting a healthy culture and less about the savings. (Healthy culture is also for image reasons, I’m sure.)

    3. Brton3*

      If the OP’s intention is to improve the program, and if questioning the value of already-implemented ideas improves the program, I see nothing wrong with this. As long as there’s no sabotage going on. Committees like this need a lot of different voices not just a bunch of people who agree with everything.

      1. Joey*

        Not if they want “role models”. If you’re going to go in and preach that your wellness program is “a joke” that won’t reflect well on you at all.

        1. OP*

          Unless the people who matter to me (my direct manager and department director) agree with me (which they do). My work culture/hierarchy isn’t such that someone in a different department can have that much of a negative effect on me. And I care more about being effective than whether people like me (in general, at work).

            1. OP*

              (1) What HR wants and what I want may be different things, and I am OK with that. I’m comfortable having opinions that differ from my coworkers and expressing those opinions in a professional manner. So saying that I shouldn’t disagree with the proposed wellness initiative because someone may disagree with me is a nonstarter. Worst case I present my case, I’m shot down, I step down from the committee. NBD.

              (2) Yes HR wants role models. But what is a role model? Someone who monitors their coworkers’ weight fluctuations and diets and other personal information? Someone who sends out “healthy tips” emails, as if the biggest barrier grown men and women have to eating healthier is that they can’t find a salmon recipe? Or is it someone who wants to stop programs that waste everyone’s time and cause employee resentment, and implement programs that are based on proven data that employees might also want?

              The shorter version: Who is the role model meant to be representing: the insurance company? HR? Or the employees?

              1. Joey*

                I’m not saying don’t disagree, I’m just saying there is a time and place to do it. And if they want role models you shouldn’t do it if you’re not okay with that part of it.

                1. OP*

                  Only disagreeing at the appropriate time and place is fine if you’re happy maintaining the status quo. But it’s often against decision makers’ best interests to have the “appropriate” time for disagreement coincide with the most effective time for disagreement. So if someone is invested in change, then they sort of have to express their opinions at a time or in a way that the decision makers did not intend.

                  Of course there can be consequences for disagreement outside of the “appropriate” method, but luckily I have great managers and I don’t think that the wellness committee is high enough stakes to negatively affect me.

              2. Joey*

                A good question that you should ask.

                But I would surmise that they want people who will want to try all of the initiatives and is interested in maximizing the incentives they earn. And tell they’re co workers how good it is

                1. OP*

                  Joey, I ask this sincerely because we obviously are coming from different perspectives on this and I want to understand your perspective.

                  You seem to put a lot of weight on giving them (HR and/or insurance co.) what they want, or doing nothing. What is your philosophical opposition to professionally presenting a different option?

                  As I explained I was being flippant when I said “this is a joke” (I wouldn’t actually say that to my HR director) but I think the rest of it is reasonable. But you seem to think that even questioning the purpose of a program like this is a bad idea. Can you elaborate on that?

                2. Joey*

                  It depends on how you give the feedback and whether or not its welcomed.

                  I may be wrong, but when you say they want a role model it usually means they want a champion of the program to the other employees. You don’t sound like you’ll champion their program. And if you weren’t willing to champion the program I know I wouldn’t want you to be the role model for other employees. I love disagreement, but I hate it when it’s based on anecdotal observations. Especially when the alternative solutions can’t really be measured with some certainty( ie going home early will equal healthy behaviors.)

                3. OP*

                  “I love disagreement, but I hate it when it’s based on anecdotal observations. Especially when the alternative solutions can’t really be measured with some certainty( ie going home early will equal healthy behaviors.)”

                  I still don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I actually specifically said that I wanted to push the committee to start evidence-based programs. And I also didn’t say “sending people home early,” but “sending people home on-time” which at least for me would encourage me to go to the gym more, because I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve brought my gym bag to work to exercise on the way home but then some project is dropped in my lap and I work until 7:30-8pm, so now my choice is gym OR cook dinner OR get a good night’s sleep, but not all three. Maybe that is an anecdote, but also as I’ve mentioned my overall suggestion would be to ask employees what they want and would use, and of those things offer benefits that demonstrably show results. And you can measure that: survey employees at the start of the program about their habits (hours of exercise per week), run the program, and then survey them again.

                  I do want to thank you for replying to my question, though, because now that I’m serious about trying to affect the direction of this committee, I’m curious about what kind of arguments I could come up against. But since you don’t actually seem to be disagreeing with the things I’ve actually suggested, I’m feeling pretty positive about how this might go (not that logical arguments always win the day, but at least I can’t say I didn’t try).

  18. squid*

    We briefly had a very good wellness program! I remember two honour system challenges, one of which related to the number of servings of fruits & vegetables eaten per day, and one of which was an “activity bingo” card with spots like “went for a walk in nature” and “tried a new activity” and “put on your favourite music and dance.” Each lasted about a month, and prizes were gift certificates from a local sporting goods store, grocery store, etc.
    Sadly it’s slipped back into a weekly, utterly obvious “tip”

    1. JessB*

      Those are both really great ideas- I love the ‘Activity Bingo’! It sounds like a lot of fun, and a way to think outside the square and try some different activities you may not have thought of before.

  19. Joey*

    And I’m not sure you realize, but even in companies that offer great medical coverage with free preventative care way too many people don’t use preventative care. And way too many people don’t do basic things like exercise or get vital signs checked ever. Companies that provide wellness incentives have found that the only way to get people to do these very basic things is to bribe them.

    And I think there’s some misinformation about the invasion or privacy as well. Companies (at least none that I know of) don’t get medical details. They typically only get notified of who, for example completed a wellness survey, or who got their vitals checked. They usually aren’t privy to the specific health information.

    1. Jamie*

      That really depends on how it’s done. I’ve worked at a place where the wellness screenings were in the office itself. Blood pressure, urine samples, blood samples, weight…all going on within sight/earshot of other employees.

      Premiums were determined by your cumulative score – but you got breaks if certain numbers were down from last year and if you were seeing someone for ongoing problems.

      I have insurance through my husband and I wasn’t involved but I absolutely overheard lectures about weight, I knew who had screened with diabetes, I knew who was trying to quit smoking and failing.

      And I know HR has the surveys – they were “anonymous” but sent through company email addys – so in other words not anonymous at all.

      There is an astonishing lack of privacy out there.

      1. Joey*

        What’s interesting is many of the same people who are concerned with privacy have the same (an frequently more) information out there of their own volition. Look at social media. Heck even if you’re not on social media you’re tracked every day if you have a cell phone. And there is privacy if you want it-don’t participate. Its a trade off, just like everything else.

        1. Jamie*

          Sure – people can opt out. I was responding to your point that none of the companies you knew of got the data (and I’m sure for many that’s true) but some don’t value that privacy.

          There are ways of doing things that don’t require your co-workers to know how much you weigh to the quarter pound or for some innocent bystander to have to see a bunch of people milling around holding their own urine samples while they’re trying to do the monthly reports. That’s all.

        2. TL*

          But there’s also a huge difference between Facebook selling my social media information (she likes science! and shops at Express! Let’s ad-spam her sidebar!) and letting my health information out.

          I’m pretty open about a lot of things and have been posting about my fun new food allergy adventure on Facebook but that doesn’t mean I want my personal medical information bandied around the office. And if I was trying to manage my diet privately, I wouldn’t want a whole bunch of people talking to me about it when I hadn’t even told them!

        3. Rana*

          It’s a forced choice, though, if you have a condition that carries a social stigma of some sort, though. There’s a reason HIPAA exists, and it’s not merely because some people are more private than others – there are real repercussions (financial, social, personal) from sharing some sorts of medical information that don’t apply to things like sharing what kinds of groceries you buy or what movies you enjoy watching.

          Plus sites like FB tend to aggregate the information they sell, rather than tie it to individual users (who can, also, create privacy-controlled, pseudonymous profiles to a greater degree than would be possible in the workplace).

            1. TL*

              My company does a health initiative; it is done through a third-party company, it is all online and does not involve anyone but your chosen GP giving you a yearly physical, and none of the information ever even gets back to our company, except compliance results.

              It also comes with the opportunity to talk to a nutritionist or personal trainer, without anyone else knowing.

              There are ways to lower your insurance without invading people’s privacy.

          1. Joey*

            So does that mean you also object to working for self insured employers like schools, govt entities, and large companies? They see tons of your health info.

        4. KellyK*

          I think it’s fairly ridiculous to say “just opt out” when companies tie employee health benefits to participating in the program. For many people it’s a choice of “provide tons of highly personal health information to your employer” or “spend an extra thousand dollars a year that you can’t afford on insurance.”

            1. KellyK*

              If employers reject any wellness plan that violates their employees’ privacy, then insurance companies who want their business will have an incentive to find other ways to lower their costs. It’s not necessarily an either/or.

        5. KellyK*

          Do you really know a lot of people who post their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and medical conditions on Facebook? I mean, I’ve mentioned things like “Yay, nerve conduction test shows I don’t have carpal tunnel!” but I doubt too many people are sharing all of their medical details with everyone they know.

        6. Lora*

          “What’s interesting is many of the same people who are concerned with privacy have the same (an frequently more) information out there of their own volition.”

          And many don’t. And there are some things I am happy to put out there on the intertubes (cats! cookie recipes! dancing!) and some things I’m not (health records! financial records! everything my evil ex ever did!). But I still have the choice, whereas what you are suggesting does not involve my choice.

          If privacy is tied to significantly higher costs, then that is NOT a choice, that is called Coercion. And it’s not cool.

          Re: what can be done about these horrible high costs of health care? I can tell you what worked for the entire state of Massachusetts: The attorney general found that the insurance companies were overcharging Bay Staters relative to other actuarial tables because they could, because costs of living in the Bay State are higher and we are used to things costing more. So she (Martha Coakley) told all the insurance companies: You will charge us what you charge other states with similar demographics, or you will not be permitted to sell insurance in Massachusetts. There was a lot of meowing on the part of the insurance companies, but in the end, they capitulated. Because they couldn’t afford to lose the entire Massachusetts market.

          Can you not get together with other employers who use these insurance packages and say, “hell no, this is crap, you are not having more than cost of living increases for the next howevermany years or you can choose to lose (howevermany) customers”? Unionize, as it were?

      2. Joey*

        Interesting tidbit on privacy. I’ve had new employees question why we need a home address or an ss#. Um, so we can hire and pay you.

      3. Lillie Lane*

        “There is an astonishing lack of privacy out there.”

        Oh, yes. My father worked at a small company and the owner was notorious for rifling through the employee medical insurance claim files. People caught on that he was doing this when he started asking employees about personal surgeries/procedures and they hadn’t shared information with anybody. My mom was terrified that he would ask my dad about some very personal procedures she needed. Luckily, employees complained and office manager found a way to lock them up!

  20. LCL*

    Go for it. Hopefully you can inject some statistics and science into the committee.
    In the US, we tend to jump straight from ‘the majority of people that had charleyhorses wore blue jackets when going for walks’ to ‘blue jackets cause charleyhorses’ and therefore ‘red jackets prevent charleyhorses. And from that, if you wear red jackets you are doing everything right, and if you wear a blue jacket you deserve what happens to you, healthwise.

    1. KellyK*

      Absolutely! A lot of employee wellness seems to be about punishing people for not wearing red jackets or forcing them to wear blue jackets. Even if the blue jackets are made of a fiber they’re allergic to.

  21. Deborah*

    When I negotiated our last contract for health insurance I managed to lock our rates for two years by agreeing to a “Healthy Initiative” program. Some of it is cheesy and the employees roll their eyes at a lot of it, but it has kept their premiums (and the company’s contributions) down. This may be the case in your company.

    1. OP*

      I assume that this is the case with my company also. But what I want to know is, does the insurance company require a specific wellness initiative? Like, does the contract say (A) “we’ll cut rates by 10% if you have a Biggest Loser contest”? Or (B) “start any wellness initiative and get a discount”? Or (C) “we have evidence that increasing rates of exercising lower insurance costs, so if you show that you start a program that increases employee exercising by 10% we’ll reduce your rates”? Because to me all of those suggest different tactics. If it says A then that’s BS but there’s not much I can do other than encourage HR to be upfront about that. If it’s B or C, then we can avoid those stupid wellness “tips” and contests and still save money. I think that a lot of these programs just start random things without researching if they actually work because it’s easier for HR (who, to be fair, aren’t trained public health scientists), at the expense of the employees.

  22. Collarbone High*

    “Serve as ‘role models’ for other employees’ healthy behavior”

    As someone who downed 2.5 doughnuts at our employee birthday party today, I think I would be unwelcome on that committee!

    1. Bea W*

      Here is what people need to understand though. 2.5 doughnuts at a party every once in a while is not necessarily bad, it’s making a meal of doughnuts everyday that becomes problematic. I think the whole notion that certain foods are taboo, just contributes to how messed up people are over food.

      1. KellyK*

        Totally agree. Balance and moderation are hugely important, and making something “forbidden” really screws with the way you think about it, and makes you crave it all the more.

  23. themmases*

    This is really timely for me– my employer’s wellness program got dramatically more invasive this year (at the same time that costs in every area of the plans– premiums, deductibles, copays, and out-of-pocket maximums) went up. Even more disturbing to me, we are a healthcare provider. I’ve literally been in conferences intended to explain our benefits where people from HR lecture a room full of health professionals– some of whom showed up in scrubs– on thinking critically about whether you need to go to the ER or just to an urgent care clinic. Every year around open enrollment I do my best to choose a plan while interacting with HR as little as possible so that I’m not too obviously angry at work.

    As a healthcare provider, we need a corporate/occupational health department that keeps some information about us– like whether we’ve gotten required vaccinations or whether we’re safe to come back to work after an illness. We used to have a great program with them where people self-reported exercise and other healthy behaviors, and could earn extra PTO if they saved up long enough.

    I initially participated in the biometric screening that replaced it because it was a free program carried out by my employer, included stuff you should be doing anyway like getting a flu shot, and could be accomplished at your own doctor if you preferred. It was basically a reminder to get a yearly physical. This year the screening can only be accomplished on our own time, must be done at one of the mini clinics in a national pharmacy chain, and spouses must participate too if they’re covered on our plan. I emailed our HR department to confirm that I couldn’t go to my own doctor for this, and was basically told that they want the aggregate health data and this is the most “confidential” way for them to get it, with the pharmacy giving it to our insurer and the insurer giving it to my employer. Next year the discount ($480/year) will also be tied to achieving some health-related goal or maintenance.

    I have very few health expenses, strongly object to this policy, and know that this is my last year here, so I decided to skip the discount and just switch the cheapest insurance– with the same coverage, but higher deductible etc. But I’ve really gone back and forth on whether to respond to my HR department and point out how inappropriate this new policy is.

    1. Joey*

      Why is it inappropriate for them to send you to the place that gives them the best deal? They’re paying for most if not all of it right?

      1. TL*

        Because choosing your healthcare provider is a big deal – you need someone you are comfortable with, even if it’s just for a screening. And just because our insurance is set up so the employer provides it doesn’t mean they have a right to dictate your doctor.

        And furthermore, your doctor knows your history and knows what is normal for you. They’re not going to lecture you about, say, your weight if they know that it has been constant for 20 years and your vitals are good. A one-shot visit place might.

      2. Lora*

        Ha. Depends on the company demographics. New doctors are notorious for re-performing tests and having poor transfer of medical records, thus re-performing tests.

        Also, why suddenly on your own time, when before it was on company time? They can’t let people out early/come in late for this instance? That seems needlessly punitive.

  24. SB*

    I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned it yet, but our office participates in a CSA as a part of the healthy initiative. I love getting the big, pretty box of organic fruits and veggies every week, and since it’s a big group order we get a discount. We also have an in-office gym, a healthy work lunch initiative (whenever we order food in for working lunches, we try to make it a healthy option such as sandwiches and salads for lunch, yogurt and fruit for breakfast, etc) We also have healthy options in the vending machines with calories listed beside the price. They did do a biggest looser event, which I think is lame. Our office is in an area with a lot of office parks, and our company contributed to getting a walking path put in around the office parks. I would like to have lunch walking groups or a pedometer drive.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Ooh, another hallelujah to suggesting a CSA. I belong to one outside of work, but I would LOVE it if it were based in my office. Right now I split my share with a friend because I can’t always guarantee I will leave at a reasonable hour on the same day every week to pick up the goods, but I can manage it every two weeks. But if the stuff were delivered to my office…voila! No need to worry about making it to the location before the cutoff time.

  25. Cassie*

    I think it’s a great idea to join committees, and think offices should have more opportunities for staff to participate in ways like this. At our offices, policies/procedures always come from the top down and management isn’t very good at looking at alternate points of view. It’s frustrating, especially since on the faculty side of things, they have a more egalitarian method of government over there where even the newest assistant professor can offer his opinion.

  26. Trixie*

    In addition to the all the great ideas/suggestions above, I’ve always liked the idea of bocci ball and horse shoe games/courts. Outside ideally but depends on your climate. If you’re sitting at your desk all day, you need something to get you up and around for a few minutes.

    And this isn’t directly related to wellness, but I’ve always remembered the job/company that offered discounted city bus passes.

  27. FD*

    With that title, I can’t be the only person imagining the OP meeting with mysterious men in dark suits and taking documents to a dead-drop location in the middle of the night…

  28. OP*

    Just wanted to chime in again to thank Alison and all of the commenters for the great advice and discussion! This has really got me thinking about ways to try to steer the committee in the right direction. I know that reasoned, logical arguments don’t always win the day, but hopefully they’ll make a little dent. Thanks all!

  29. Anonymous*

    My workplace held a Biggest Loser contest and it was a disaster for my department. One of my employees went off his meds in order to lose wait because one of its side effects was weight gain. I don’t even want to get into what happened but I view these contests in a very negative light now.

    1. VintageLydia*

      My MIL’s workplace did this once. She’s not really overweight–quite healthy for a woman nearing 60. But she pretty much starved herself to “help the team out”. She went from looking pretty healthy to looking–not nearly as healthy. What drives me nuts is people were complimenting her weight loss! She was skin and bones and eating like a bird! She obviously couldn’t keep it up because at some point you can’t starve yourself anymore and she got upset that she gained most of it back! She’s still really really slim, well within “normal” parameters for her age. No, you’re not going to have the body of a 20 year old without stupid amounts of plastic surgery. Biology is against you there unless you are very very VERY lucky. The whole thing just drives me up the wall.
      Oh yeah and her workplace? A hospital :|

  30. Cat*

    I really hope that the writer did indeed say that! My old company had a wellness scheme that, for the most part, was good. We had subsidised gym memberships, healthy food in the vending machines, etc. Yet the company focused solely on physical health and not mental health. Not once did anyone on the wellness committee actually point out that the people in our department were doing approximately 35 hours of overtime A WEEK due to staffing issues. The staffing issues just got worse because people got tired of all that overtime that they’d quit, not be replaced, and the rest of us would have to pick up the slack. Clients were noticing that projects on a two-week turnaround were being finished months late and we’d get it in the neck for ‘not putting in enough effort.’ I hope that if I ever end up in a similar situation again, I’d join the ‘wellness’ committee and point it out to them.

    Also, just another suggestion for such a committee might be to organise fun days out. For example, dragon boating, obstacle courses etc. It’s a bit of exercise but more importantly it can really help bond a team, even if it’s a group of people who don’t usually work together, i.e. different departments. One of the reasons I left the company I mentioned above is because of the O/T issue but perhaps it would have been a harder decision for me to make if I had good memories to offset the bad stuff!

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