Refreshment At OfficeEmployee wellness programs skyrocketed in 2015, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down. In fact, 2016 seems to be the year that employee wellness programs occupy much of the spotlight when it comes to voluntary employee benefits.

What exactly are employee wellness programs?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an employee wellness program is “a health promotion activity or organization-wide policy designed to support healthy behaviors and improve health outcomes while at work.” As the definition suggests, there is a lot of room to define exactly what kind of activity or policy qualifies as a wellness program, but it can include physical fitness, spiritual counseling, emotional wellbeing, stress management, intellectual stimulation, socializing and any other aspect that could possibly fall under wellness.

There are a number of factors that influence  the type of wellness program a company offers – the HR department, controlling costs and company culture, to name a few – but the bottom line is that each company needs to choose a program that suits their needs.

Benefits of Employee Wellness Programs

The benefits of employee wellness programs – for both employers and employees – is supported by a plethora of recent research. For example, an article in Fortune points to data-driven benefits for employers – specifically, that healthy employees can reduce overall healthcare costs. This is incentive enough for employers to jump on the wellness wagon.

Controversy Surrounding Employee Wellness Programs

As wellness programs become more popular, their very nature is being disputed. Some take issue with the fact that these programs are usually voluntary; in other words, employees can choose to avail themselves of them, or not. However, some companies have begun penalizing employees who do not take part in their wellness programs.

In fact, in 2015 there were a slew of lawsuits surrounding this matter. The New York Times reported on a Wisconsin case in which a company, Flambeau, required its employees to fill out a detailed health questionnaire and submit to biometric screening to participate in its wellness program. Flambeau, like many companies, uses a wellness program in order to cut insurance costs. One employee did not fill out the questionnaire, and the company responded with a penalty – refusal to pay their part of the employee’s health insurance (which was no longer subsidized). The employee lost his insurance, sued the company, but ultimately lost the lawsuit.

In 2015 the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) also fought its share of legal battles against employers, on behalf of employees who were penalized for not meeting the company’s supposedly voluntary standards. The companies argued that the employers don’t actually look at the individual’s health; instead they pool the information and use it to manage their risks and assess which wellness programs would best suit their employees. And in most cases, the companies have been winning.

All of this begs the question as to whether wellness programs are actually voluntary, if employees who don’t complete wellness program questionnaires and blood tests are then penalized with denial of health coverage. Though previous lawsuits have ruled in favor of the employers, there is no telling how the tide will turn as more and more of these cases appear.

What’s an employer to do?

As an employer, it is up to you to choose your wellness program carefully, and to think about the penalties incurred by employees who do not wish to participate in your plan. The last thing you want is to be slapped with a lawsuit by an employee who feels his privacy or other rights are being violated. Going to court is risky, costly and contrary to a company culture of trust and appreciation.