For Your Benefit

New Year, New Rules for Employee Wellness

Employers designing wellness programs no longer have EEOC incentive guidelines to follow.

By Andie Burjek

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ew year, new rules. At least for companies with workplace wellness programs.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s incentive rule — which dictated that wellness programs are considered voluntary if the incentive or penalty was no more than 30 percent of the cost of the health insurance — will no longer be in effect as of Jan. 1, 2019, following a lawsuit filed by AARP. This has some employers feeling lost on the legality and future of their wellness programs.

AARP claimed that the 30 percent incentive was coercive, leaving employees no choice but to participate in a program that is supposedly “voluntary,” and this was problematic when participating in a program meant sharing private health information. With no rule to follow, employers can offer whatever incentive they want, which also increases the program’s risk of legal action from employees.

While incentives can be effective for short-term activities like getting a flu shot, there are other ways to motivate participation and engagement in a wellness program, according to Shira Wilensky, national practice leader, health and well-being at OneDigital Health and Benefits, an Atlanta-based benefits company.

“When you offer employees programs and resources that they want and perceive as valuable, you don’t have to coerce them to participate,” she said, adding that their strategy with clients won’t be changing. They’ll continue to try to help clients develop incentive programs that align with company culture.

What’s also important to remember now is that all the rules impacting wellness program design are not going away, she said. There’s still privacy laws that protect employees from having to disclose genetic and disability-related information for the sake of a company-sponsored wellness program unless it is voluntary.

“The whole reason the EEOC rules came into play is because there was no definition of ‘voluntary.’ In my mind, employers are still at risk,” Wilensky said.

Ever since the guideline was instituted in 2016, many legal experts saw it as vulnerable, according to Harry Liu, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Thirty percent is hardly voluntary, he added, and according to published research and literature, financial incentives don’t have a notable effect in the long run.

In general, employers should focus more on how to create a culture of health, get leadership support of program, and solicit employees’ input to customize the program according to employees’ needs so that employees, in a sense, own the program, he said.

“You want to respect employees, and you want to win their loyalty. You want and get their input to see what exactly they need,” Liu said.

For example, in an environment like a manufacturing company, employees easily may already get enough physical activity throughout the day. While corporate executives might use a wellness perk like a free gym membership, the blue-collar workers wouldn’t necessarily find that valuable, he said. The needs of different employee cohorts can vary greatly.

For employers looking for a way to expand the reach of their wellness program now, one strategy is to focus on disease management programs rather than lifestyle management programs. Interventions like one-on-one health coaching aren’t money-saving, but interventions that address chronic conditions can save money, Liu said. Potential ways to go about this include health education efforts through seminars, offering healthy food at work and group coaching rather than one-on-one coaching.

Gympass Houston team prepares to work out.

“Those are the things that are relatively cheap and reach a large audience,” Liu said

With the removal of the EEOC’s incentive rule, companies have to be more creative in the way they’re incentivizing people to take advantage of wellness programs, said Nikki Salenetri, CHRO of Gympass, a platform that allows users to pay a monthly fee and visit different gyms and classes throughout the month.

One internal campaign in the organization is called Let’s Go Together and encourages employees to go to workouts in groups, she said. The idea behind this is that people who are new to fitness may be scared to go into a gym for the first time, and this is a way for people with common fitness interests or goals to support each other.

Promoting Let’s Go Together takes place both online and offline, Salenetri said. Posters around the office let people sign up for activities they like and see who else signed up. And employees use Slack channels focused on a common fitness activity like yoga or Pilates to make conversation among co-workers that much easier. They also occasionally share photos with each other from their workouts.

“If you have a group of people that is encouraging each other to go [to the gym] and they’re participating together, we think that typically results in higher usage,” Salenetri said.