Fess up about your food and drink habits

Saturday, March 20
Posted 8 a.m. Eastern

How would you feel if your employer offered financial incentives if you lost weight or quit smoking? Would you welcome this apparent show of paternalistic concern, or would you consider it an intrusion -- none of your employer's business?

How about if your employer penalized you financially by, for example, raising your health insurance premiums or deductibles if you didn't lose weight or quit smoking?

These are not theoretical questions. Employers are increasingly implementing health and wellness programs, and they're wielding both carrots and sticks to influence employee behavior. Their motive? A healthy workforce results in reduced health care costs and higher productivity. It affects their bottom line, in other words, so it can be argued that your health is your employer's business.

Just about all large companies (95 percent) say managing costs is a top business priority, according to Hewitt Associates' annual health care trends survey of some 600 large U.S. companies representing over 10 million workers. Health care costs have more than doubled in the last decade, from an average of $4,793 per person in 2001 to $11,058 in 2010, according to the human resources consulting firm. Costs include premiums paid by both the employer and employee as well as employee out-of-pocket expenses.

An invasion of privacy?

Right now, the carrot approach is more common. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of companies offer cash incentives to employees who complete a health risk questionnaire. That's up from 35 percent in 2009. For instance, you just offer up some information, and in exchange you get $100.

What kind of information must you divulge? Well, does coronary heart disease or diabetes run in your family? How about strokes? Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer? How often do you drink alcohol or caffeine? How often do you exercise?

Whaddya think? Is revealing this information worth $100 to you? I don't know about you, but I would prefer to keep this information between me and my health care provider.

That's one type of carrot. Another type is cash given to employees who participate in health improvement programs. Nearly four in 10 large employers (37 percent) provide this perk to workers. I'm not sure if employees who already enjoy stellar health get these incentives, or if the perks are only provided to those who could use some improvement.

Punishment for noncompliance

As for the "sticks" approach, nearly half (47 percent) of employers say they either already use or plan to use financial penalties over the next three to five years to punish workers who don't take part in certain health improvement efforts such as smoking cessation or disease management programs.

Personally, I am a huge advocate of doing everything in my power to be as healthy as possible. It's not because I want to live to 95; I just want to enjoy the feeling of well-being that you get by avoiding heavy drinking and smoking, and by eating nutritious foods. It's gratifying in and of itself.

But if I had to choose a Big Brother to report my personal lifestyle habits to, I would prefer it be the U.S. government than my employer. If my employer doesn't like my answers to a health risk questionnaire, it can find a way to terminate me. Not only would I lose my steady income, but I also would no longer be able to afford health insurance.

But the federal government, I trust, would not deport me if it didn't like my answers. Further, in the event that I ever am laid off by my employer, I would love to have access to affordable health care outside of the workplace, regardless of any pre-existing conditions.

On a totally different topic, check out Bankrate's 2010 Retirement Guide.

Questions? Comments? E-mail

Read more Boomer Bucks blogs.


Show Bankrate's community sharing policy

Connect with us