Avoiding Unintended Consequences of Wellness Programs


Employers frequently encourage employees to exercise either as part of a formal wellness program or a company-sponsored health initiative. “Employers are reacting in part to research showing that Americans continue to struggle with obesity and inactive lifestyles,” according to a recent Society of Human Resources Management article.

When considering adopting a wellness initiative, employers should carefully consider all possible consequences, both intended and unintended.

Some organizations create competitions to encourage employees to participate. Such competitions, if ill-conceived, could disenfranchise those who would most benefit from such a program. For instance, measuring who loses the most weight could cause overweight employees not to join for fear of being embarrassed in front of colleagues. 

Also, rarely do all employees participate in such a program. Those who do already value exercise, so participating in the company’s initiative is not as significant a life change as those who traditionally do not exercise on a regular basis. The result could be “almost a class system of the fit and the unfit,” argues Steve Miranda, managing director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University.

Employers are encouraged to think of creative ways to design wellness initiatives to reach the employees who would most benefit.