Workplace Wellness Draws Wide Worker Support

May 11, 2009 ( - A new Rutgers University survey finds widespread employee support for employer-supplied wellness programs - one aspect of the steps typically mentioned as part of a national health reform effort.

A Rutgers news release about its “ Healthy at Work?” study from its John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, said 70% of the working adults polled back employers who offer wellness initiatives.Some 40% of respondents said they have workplace access to such a program and about a third of those with access say it has had a major impact on the overall health of their workplace colleagues.

“Wellness programs show potential in the health policy arena to help people avoid or postpone serious diseases and curb health care costs,” said Carl E. Van Horn Professor and Director of the Heldrich Center, in the news release. “However, wellness programs can develop into an equity issue, as we find that less-affluent and less-educated workers say they lack access to an employer-provided wellness program.”

Access Issues

The national telephone survey, conducted March 19-29, 2009, among 583 adults working full- or part-time jobs, found that workers with more formal education and those with above average incomes (over $70,000) are much more likely to report access to employer-based wellness programs, Rutgers said.

Nearly half of college graduates (46%) report access to an employer wellness program, compared to a quarter of employees with a high school education or less. Forty-five percent of salaried workers report access to a program, compared to 35% of hourly workers. Finally, about 4 in 10 workers (44%) with incomes of $70,000 or more say they have access to a wellness program, compared to 2 in 10 (21%) of those making $35,000 or less.

“Workers are telling us that they want to participate in employer-based wellness programs, but many do not have access to them.” said Van Horn, in the news release.

Despite worker support for wellness programs, there are difficulties in setting boundaries of such an initiative, according to the Rutgers survey.

Most respondents do not feel it is appropriate to give compensation in the form of increased salary or extra time off to those who participate in wellness programs and many feel it is unfair for workers to pay higher premiums because of existing health conditions, such as being overweight or having emotional problems.

Three-quarters of workers (74%) say employers should give lower health care premiums to employees who participate in wellness programs. The majority, however, do not support penalizing employees who engage in potentially unhealthy behavior:

  • Half (47%) of workers say employers should be allowed to charge smokers more for health insurance.
  • 4 in 10 workers (43%) support higher rates for people who drink too much alcohol.
  • One-quarter of workers (26%) think people who are very overweight should pay more.

Workers overwhelmingly oppose higher health insurance rates for older workers, people with genetic conditions tied to major diseases, people with emotional problems, and others whose health conditions are beyond their control, the survey found.

While wellness and disease management programs can work best through the sharing of health information, workers express concern about confidentiality of their health records.

The latest survey was conducted from March 19-29, 2009, with a scientifically selected random sample of 700 U.S. residents who are currently in the labor force, which is defined as working full or part time or unemployed and currently looking for a job. A subset of questions about wellness programs and electronic health records was asked of 583 respondents, those working full or part time (117 respondents say they are currently looking for work).

The Rutgers report is available here .

Legislative Support

A bill introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Mary Bono Mack (R-California) would provide a tax credit to companies that offer effective and comprehensive wellness programs.

The legislation would permit businesses to receive a credit for incorporating sound employee health management practices into their plan design, and would ease barriers for both small and mid-sized employers to make a sound investment, a news release said (see New Bill Would Encourage Employers to Offer Wellness Programs ).