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Workplace Wellness Programs

Employers have offered workplace wellness programs with employee benefits packages for decades. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, even more employers realize that employee well-being is critical to their success.

One study found that small businesses know the need for employee wellness programs. They can see the impact of sick employees immediately. Nearly half of the smallest companies in the study reported their employees had to work when sick. A third of those surveyed said that productivity declined at the same time.

Few small businesses offer employee health programs. There are legal and psychological reasons for this resistance, despite how they might help the business's bottom line. Small-business owners and human resources professionals can overcome these difficulties.

See FindLaw's Wages and Benefits section for more articles on workplace benefits.

What Are Workplace Wellness Programs?

Workplace wellness programs help employees improve their physical and mental health. They can be as complex as an on-site fitness center or as simple as offering healthy snacks in the break room.

Some large health insurance companies offer wellness programs as a package with their insurance plans. The health benefits and reduced premiums can be a bonus for companies offering these plans.

Other wellness programs can include health fairs, on-site fitness programs, or gym memberships. For small businesses, even health care brochures or smoking cessation support for workers can be helpful.

Overcoming Workplace Barriers to Wellness

Many small businesses use shared or group insurance. This allows them to pool their costs with other small companies. There may be little or no reduction in health care costs, especially at first. This limited return on investment can make small or startup businesses hesitate before offering a wellness plan. Why start something with no guarantee of a payoff?

A bigger stumbling block is a company culture of resistance. Workers know that physical activity and stress management are essential for good health. But with all the hustle and bustle of the day's work, adding a workplace wellness challenge may be too much.

Including Everyone: ADA Requirements and Nondiscrimination Rules

Your workplace wellness program must be inclusive. Whether you invest in weight equipment or encourage healthy eating habits, your plan cannot exclude anyone. Corporate wellness programs have more money and room than a 10-person office and can have programs to fit everyone. Smaller offices need to get creative.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not allow an employee with disabilities to excuse themselves from a planned event or program. A lunchtime walking program may seem like a good idea until you remember one of your workers has rheumatoid arthritis.

Wellness vendors — HR consultants who offer health coaching for work sites — are a growing industry. They can review your employees' health needs and create a wellness program that suits your business. Of course, these consultants may cost more than a small business can afford.

Legal Issues Facing Wellness Programs

Your workplace wellness program should follow all federal and state health regulations. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) covers disclosures of health-related information. This law affects only protected health information (PHI) for health insurance purposes.

Employers must avoid disclosing any sensitive employee information to anyone other than health care providers. For purposes of HIPAA, some information is not considered PHI. This includes:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) medical certifications
  • Requests for accommodation under the ADA and related documentation
  • Doctor's notes provided under the terms of an employer's absence policy

If a wellness program involves health assessments, it's up to the employer and human resources to keep all information private. You can protect yourself by making employee participation voluntary. Provide HIPAA authorization forms when needed.

The following information highlights specific laws about employer-sponsored wellness programs:

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has enforcement authority over federal labor laws. The EEOC has provided guidance on the ADA and workplace wellness programs. These guidelines help explain the differences between HIPAA and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Wellness programs must accommodate workers with disabilities. The ADA allows employers to ask about health risks related to their disability for insurance purposes. This is known as the safe harbor provision. The safe harbor does not apply to wellness programs. Your program must be one that all workers can use.

The EEOC advises that any wellness program that asks employees about health conditions must be reasonably designed to inform employees about health risks. For instance, a blood-pressure screening that notifies workers they have high blood pressure. Without this provision, the program fails the ADA and EEOC guidelines for a reasonable program.

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

The EEOC's final rule on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) clarifies some murky language in the law. GINA prohibits employers from offering financial incentives in exchange for employees' genetic material.

The EEOC guidance allows "a limited incentive (in the form of a reward or penalty) to an employee whose spouse receives health or genetic services offered by the employee -- including as part of a wellness program -- and provides information about his or her current or past health status."

Any wellness program must be voluntary for the employee and their spouse. GINA also requires written authorization that:

  • The employee or spouse is reasonably able to understand
  • Describes the nature of the genetic information obtained and its use. For instance, "we use questions about family history as assessments for cancer screenings."
  • Explains GINA restrictions on the disclosure of genetic information, including surveys

Under federal law, any monetary incentives for participation.

Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) offers incentives for improved health care services. This includes wellness initiatives and workplace programs. The EEOC oversees these laws. Small businesses should contact their state health insurer about available grants and discounts. General information and links are available at HealthCare.gov. The ACA also offers employers:

  • Monetary grants for small businesses to establish workplace wellness programs
  • Increased cap on wellness-related discounts
  • Group insurance plans must report on the impact of wellness and prevention initiatives

Contact your insurance company and the EEOC before setting up your program to take advantage of the ACA incentives.

Workplace Wellness Programs for Everyone

Small businesses can't always afford gym memberships. Keeping everyone in the office on track for health and wellness can be difficult. Business owners want healthy employees and the benefits of a health plan. The following can help improve everyone's work-life balance without costing too much:

  • Team Building Programs: Health and fitness programs work best when team members reinforce one another. Offer incentives for all employees if they meet their fitness goals each week. Each worker can have their own goal, but everyone encourages others and receives the weekly bonus. This meets the legal requirements but keeps your fitness programs on track.
  • Improving Attendance: Absenteeism hurts small businesses. If employees are missing work, find out why. Flexible working arrangements can improve employee morale and improve attendance. Remote work, flex time, and hybrid work greatly impact workplace health.
  • Workplace Improvements: The workplace itself is as important as the workday. Standing desks, no-stress monitors, and ergonomic furniture make a day in the office less demanding. Let your workers decorate the workspace. It is a nice perk for them and increases employee engagement.

Workplace Wellness: Get Legal Advice

Workplace wellness programs let your employees take control of their health. Be sure you follow the laws and talk with a business law attorney. They can ensure you're current with the rules in your area.

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