THE BLOG
09/17/2015 04:31 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2016

Warning: Workplace Wellness Is Hazardous to Your Health

Martin Barraud via Getty Images

As a CEO of a company in a competitive industry, I cross my fingers that my competitors will implement wellness programs.

Indeed, the more comprehensive their programs, the better it is for me. Those competitors will suffer increased healthcare costs, compounded by declines in productivity. Best of all, these programs' negative morale impact may lead some employees to quit, thus facilitating our own recruiting efforts. (This is especially true for overweight employees, whom wellness vendors really seem to dislike. We, on the other hand, find employee weight makes no difference in either productivity or health spending.)

So hopefully my competitors will disregard the rest of this posting.

As background for those readers of the Huffpost Business blog who are mercifully still unfamiliar with workplace wellness programs, they generally consist of four components (called "pry, poke, prod and punish" programs as shorthand):

  1. A "health risk assessment," or HRA, that pries into your employees' personal lives, often asking about their drinking habits, marriage etc.;
  2. A "biometric screen" where technicians in white coats come to your workplace and poke your employees with needles to test them for diseases that in many cases, the government's clinical guidelines say they shouldn't be tested for. A small but increasing number of programs demand employee DNA, which isn't in any clinical guideline;
  3. Prodding employees to go to the doctor when they aren't sick, to see if the doctor can find anything wrong with them;
  4. Punishing employees who refuse to submit, either in the form of penalties or lost incentives.

Further, more and more programs are "outcomes-based," meaning money gets tied to weight loss. (To maximize earnings at the expense of their long-term health, employees can binge before the initial weigh-in and then crash-diet before the last. Is this a great country or what?)

There are three reasons I hope my competitors undertake these programs.

First, their healthcare expenses will rise. Even wellness vendors themselves admit -- in their official consensus industry guidelines -- that wellness loses money. That's why the Los Angeles Times calls wellness a "scam," why the New York Times' economists say: "workplace wellness programs don't save money," and why the steadfastly neutral nonprofit RAND Corporation says it "does not reduce...cost." Wellness may be the only issue that the right-wing publications we Huffposters love to hate - Newsmax and the Federalist - agree with the reviled "liberal media."

In addition to the considerable cost of wellness itself, there are the extra checkups, lab tests, and the whole "treatment trap" that an employee gets sucked into when a wellness vendor "finds something," which wellness vendors love to do...and brag about, even making up diagnoses to inflate their findings. We call that hyperdiagnosis.

Second, their productivity will decline. Consider the time spent completing these HRAs, the time wasted in "health fairs," and the hours lost to forced annual checkups that everyone agrees are worthless, even the doctors themselves. But that's not the half of it. Now add in the time employees spend telling one another what a stupid idea your wellness program is (and you need only read the comments on other articles about wellness to see how employees feel). And that raises the third point...

...Their corporate morale will suffer. Once again, this is something the industry readily admits, "morale impact" being one of many program costs listed in their consensus document. (Probably never before in history has an entire industry voluntarily admitted its worthlessness as thoroughly as the wellness industry did here. Use this reader's guide to help interpret this self-immolation.) No need to take the industry's own word for it. Penn State, CVS, and Honeywell provide excellent case studies.

Better yet is this rant, a typical set of complaints about wellness - the wasted time, stupid and overly personal queries, incompetence, and increased cost. Unfortunately, this organization for whom this person works is not a competitor of mine, or I'd have my recruiters working overtime.

Newsflash: employees want to be left alone to do their jobs. Except at both extremes, it doesn't matter what they weigh. So don't "play doctor," or force employees to get "coaching" for issues they don't want you involved with.

If you engage your internal wellness staff in a candid moment--which we hope our competitors don't do--they themselves will likely admit or offer that wellness vendors just make their own jobs harder, make them more unpopular and probably impede them from actually helping to create a healthier culture, which is why you hired wellness experts in the first place. Like all your other employees, they just want to be left alone to do their jobs.

Yes, this is a much different take on wellness than the kumbaya viewpoints that have also been shared on Huffpost. However, those Huffposts are written by the CEO of a wellness vendor and bear no relationship to what that particular vendor (or most others, with a few carefully validated exceptions) want to actually do to your employees to maximize their profits. And these posts lead to another observation about wellness: no one defends it except the vendors and consultants who make money off it. This is a true indication of an industry's parasitic irrelevance.

Unfortunately, even my densest competitors will figure this out on their own someday.