Workplace Wellness or Else!

According to a recent report by Towers Watson & Company, by 2016 the percentage of employers who plan to punish their employees for not participating in workplace wellness is expected to triple. The researchers found that:

  • 22% of employers already incorporate penalties into their incentive structures
  • 36% of employers are planning to do so by the end of the year
  • 61% of employers plan to do so by 2016

For many of us who have been involved for decades with wellness and health promotion, punishing people for not doing wellness is an extremely disturbing trend.

  • Don’t want to fill out an HRA because the questions it is asking are either so obvious – Do you smoke? Do you wear a seatbelt? Or highly personal – Do you examine your testicles regularly (if you are a man)? Are you planning to getting pregnant next year (if you are a woman)? It will cost you.
  • Don’t want to participate in a blood screening because you already did that with a real doctor, or because the screening at work is not following preventive guidelines anyway? It will cost you.
  • Can’t get your BMI under 25 – because no program on this planet can make that happen for all but a small minority of folks, and everyone else gains the weight back? It will cost you.
  • Can’t get your stress under control in spite of the stress management program you were required to take because your boss is a control freak who monitors and manipulates your every move? It will cost you.

How much will it cost you? Assuming an average cost of a family employer health plan of approximately $16,000, about $4,800 of that (30%) might be at risk for failure to meet such benchmarks. With a median annual income of about $50,500 per year, this penalty would account for almost 10% of yearly income.1

Feeling less well all of a sudden?
Never mind that we have more than 30 years of research demonstrating conclusively that rewards and punishments do not change behaviors in the long run — especially when those behaviors involve creativity, decision making and critical thinking.2

Never mind that scores of studies show these incentives often diminish performance and creativity, foster short-term thinking, encourage cheating, become habit forming, and reduce or extinguish intrinsic motivation.2

Never mind that the research on which these approaches are based, and that resulted in the Affordable Care Act wellness provisions, were completely fabricated — the scientific term for that is made up.3

Never mind that not a shred of evidence exists to support the notion that these punitive approaches positively affect healthcare costs or health outcomes.4

Add just a pinch of common sense to all this, and it is difficult to comprehend why anyone (other than the people who are making money from them) would buy into these types of approaches.

Perhaps most ironically (and sadly or maddeningly depending on your perspective) programs such as these are most likely to penalize the very people who are least able to meet the biometric and behavioral benchmarks demanded of them in order not to be charged more for their insurance premiums that they are also less likely to be able to afford — exactly the opposite of what the Affordable Care Act is supposed to be about.5

Right now, I am talking specifically to health professionals of all persuasions — anyone involved in employee wellness or health promotion: dietitians, health educators, exercise physiologists, social workers, psychologists, nurses, doctors, coaches, etc. Penalizing people who don’t comply?

  • Is this really what you believe in?
  • Is this really what you went into your field to do?
  • Do you really think this will improve their “wellness”?

Or have we really lost our way?

And for CEOs, managers, HR and benefits professionals:

  • Do you really think this is the best way to improve engagement for the almost 70% of workers in this country who are not engaged in their work?
  • Do you really think this will increase the likelihood that employees are going to care about their work — and bring their best selves to your organization each day?
  • Do you really think this will improve employee “wellness”?

Or have we really lost our way?

So, how about this for a take-home message:

Instead of trying to pressure, coerce, and punish employees into being thinking, creative, engaged, healthy, autonomous adults, we try treating them as if that is exactly what they are.

P.S.     Also check out this video: Employee Productivity: Words & The Art of Treating Employees Like Adults


  2. Pink, D.H. “Drive”; Deci, E.L. “Why We Do What We Do”; Kohn, A.“Punished by Rewards”; Jacobs, C.S. “Management Rewired.”
  3. Hilzenrath, D.S. “Washington Post,” Sunday, January 17, 2010.
  4. Volpp, et al., “Redesigning Employee Health Incentives,” NEJM 2011; 365;5:388-390.
  5. The Prevention Institute, The Greenlining Institute, “Workplace wellness regulations: First do no harm,” 2013.

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: or

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