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Jul 14, 2010

My health is my affair, right? If I decide to stuff my face, never get off the couch, and chew tobacco until the cows come home, whose business is that but mine and maybe my family’s?

You’ll hear that response if you conduct focus groups about health and wellness.

Is it a fair position? Do companies have a place in their employees’ health? Or, is employee health a private matter?

I’m going with the classic consultant answer: it depends.

Do companies have a right to see each individual’s medical and prescription history? To know that I’m personally popping enough Lexapro to keep a small country ebullient for a lifetime? No, companies don’t have that right — in my opinion, and legally.

Do they have the right to know that their employees are collectively under enough stress to collapse the George Washington Bridge, and the phone’s been ringing off the hook at the EAP about it? Yup.

Do they have the right to alter what’s being offered at the company cafeteria, and in the vending machines, and to provide incentives to alter what their employees eat? Whether they smoke? And to help get their butts moving on a regular basis? You betcha.

Can they say, “I’ll give you benefits when you complete our health risk assessment?” And, can their insurance partner reach out to you if that assessment shows significant health risks that personal health coaching could lower? What do you think? Bingo!

And I’ll tell you why — because they’re on the hook for the outcome.

On average, employers pay 75–80 percent of employees’ and their families’ premium, which also allows for the $25 copay, 20 percent coinsurance, and free diabetic prescriptions. That’s not factoring in the lost revenue from absenteeism, disability, lowered productivity, and presenteeism. (Realistically, we all pay through increased health care costs and suppressed wages, but try telling your employees that Joe in accounting wants them to put down that donut.)

For a very long time, companies have shied away from talking about the true cost of health care — to their employees, to the business, and to their combined fate. Because of this, it’s a very difficult conversation when all of a sudden an employer is butting their nose into what’s typically considered a very private matter: our health and health habits.

Like your Mom and Dad presuming that they get a say in the invite list, the seating arrangements, and the spread when they’re footing the bill for your wedding, companies have an active interest in their employees’ health. And just as with Mom and Dad, we may not like it, but it’s justifiable.

And if we really don’t like it, the other option is to just foot the bill ourselves.

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s free-range communications blog.