The Wrong Way to Promote Employee Wellness

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Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth — there is not one corporation that cares about its workers’ health.

If gorging on quadruple-patty burgers topped with mounds of bacon and cheese were shown to bolster productivity and engagement, then companies would be serving McFat platters daily for lunch. If growing waistlines were to yield growing profits, then every business would encourage workers to partake in a corporate un-wellness program.

So please, can we euthanize the warm and fuzzy charade that organizations are like mothers nurturing their newborns? It’s sickening.

The flap over the CVS “voluntary” wellness plan

As it turns out, there’s good reason for companies to prefer not to employ overweight people puffing away their well-being during cigarette breaks. Given skyrocketing health care expenses, unhealthier people equals an unhealthier bottom line.

Of course, and rightly so, you can’t legally fire or refuse to hire someone based on ability to race a marathon, but is there anything wrong in persuading your people to replace their fries with celery, nix the nicotine, and maybe hop on a treadmill?

That depends. Recently, drug store chain CVS “asked” its 200,000 workers to participate in a new “voluntary” wellness program. The quotation marks are there for a reason, the manifestation of much uproar.

If you want to continue using the pharmacy’s health-insurance plan, CVS explained to employees, then you must get an annual company-sponsored health screening and submit to WebMD your weight, body-fat percentage, cholesterol, glucose numbers, and other stats — so that you can then receive “guidance” on improving your health. (See the quotes again. Look, you already likely know your shortcomings.You don’t need some website’s condescension explaining that apples are more nutritious than Oreos, or some lame “you go, girl” thinspiration.)

Employees who opt not to complete the assessment and report numbers must fork over a $50 monthly penalty. This is voluntary, CVS explained, because workers have the option to decline the company’s insurance plan.

Is this really a privacy issue?

Except, especially for many of CVS’s lower-earning staff, paying an extra $600 a year versus $800 or so per month for an independent health plan versus buying no insurance is hardly a choice. It’s practically mockery, which has caused some people’s blood to boil. (So much for wellness.) It’s my body, and I’ll decide if I want a health assessment, and my weight is none of my company’s business.

Actually, it kind of is.

Those arguing that CVS’s new effort invades privacy and will enable the organization to rid itself of employees too porky to grace a Muscle & Fitness magazine cover are right — to an extent. CVS can do this, but it probably won’t.

Let’s all take a Xanax for a moment.

Even without a wellness program, many companies have varied access to medical records, and if they want to discriminate based on EKG results, there’s nothing but HIPAA stopping them. (Never mind that your employer doesn’t need to see your blood work to form opinions about your health.) Playing the privacy card to criticize CVS for its new initiative seems ignorant at best, disingenuous at worst.

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What then, is so upsetting?

Here’s what: Any perceived impingement on our freedom to order KFC, smoke a Marlboro, do a push-up, and yes, get a health assessment — or not — feels less like persuasion and more like coercion. So the real question becomes: Is CVS really twisting the arms of its employees?

Yes. And no. And it doesn’t matter.

The real issue: it’s about bad marketing by CVS!

Here’s why: If the company had instead raised the cost of insurance for everyone, as often happens yearly, and then offered discounts to those who’d get the health exam and report specific findings, would people be as angry? Probably not, because they’d be pondering a $600 reward rather than a $600 fine.

But this psychological mind game of semantics clouds the logical point that, ultimately, one person’s reward is another’s punishment — those who’d choose not to get the health checkup would still pay more.

Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong — and maybe something very right — with charging people differently based on health status, within reason, of course. Indeed, 57 percent of organizations offer incentives for completing a health-risk assessment, according to a Buck Consultants survey.

Now, we can debate the meaning of “within reason,” but make no mistake: CVS’s real crime is one of marketing. By making it appear as if employees must pay penalties for noncompliance, the organization invoked feelings of disgust and anger.

People like to feel like they’re getting, not losing, something. In short, the outcry over CVS’s new plan has nothing to do with health care and everything to do with the notion that the pharmacy is striking its people with sticks rather than offering carrots.

Vadim Liberman is a talent strategist, pundit, and advocate—a chief renegade officer advancing how we think, work, and live. With an expansive background in employee engagement, internal communications, and business journalism, Vadim mixes skepticism and hope to challenge conventions and create better workplaces. Check out his blog,

Currently, Vadim is a practice leader at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that embraces humanity in business to build emotional resonance with enterprise software and services brands. Prior, Vadim managed talent engagement at Prudential, where he often battled bureaucracy and sometimes even won. Before that, he was senior editor at TCB Review, the thought-leader magazine of The Conference Board, where he explored ideas and opinions related to business management and the myriad ways that leaders fail their organizations.

Vadim also co-organizes and speaks regularly at DisruptHR events, where he has injected Madonna, cats, and ’80s television characters into presentations to inform and energize HR and other business executives. Contact him at .


4 Comments on “The Wrong Way to Promote Employee Wellness

  1. I think the program by CVS is a BIG negative for employees with lower salaries. Also I think employers do discriminate against fat people in hiring. Laws aside it’s easy to say they found someone more qualified for the position.
    I think we are going to see even more blatant examples of passing costs off to employees in the future. Mark my words! And this prophecy is one I would gladly like to see be a “miss”.

    1. Sadly, I think you’re right about weight-based discrimination. Although, given the rate at which American waists are expanding, I do wonder if such biases will subside or if people will simply develop different, weightier, ideas of what it means to be fat.

  2. Absolutely, wellness programs are about money – but the real leaders in the field know that they can generate money. To those leaders – like Google and Apple and others in the tech industry – it’s not about saving money, but about fostering the creativity and inspiration needed to bring in more revenue. Of course, that requires the right company culture and a well-designed plan. The way everyone turned on CVS indicates a poorly designed plan – and you’re absolutely right it had a lot to do with how they marketed it. Of course, none of this addresses the underlying issue, which is why are businesses and individuals expected to pick up the slack in our failed health care system, when the center of the problem is the health insurance industry. I very much support wellness programs, but I also see that they are a great blind, hiding deeper issues and blaming increasing health care costs erroneously on individual behaviors.

  3. Absolutely agree with you Jennifer. I would like to communicate further with you on this subject.

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