Workplace wellness sounds good, but is it ethical?

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    Medical ethicist Art Caplan weighs in on the surge of workplace wellness programs and how some of these programs

    Medical ethicist Art Caplan weighs in on the surge of workplace wellness programs and how some of these programs "go too far."

    Medical ethicist Art Caplan weighs in on the surge of workplace wellness programs and how some of these programs “go too far.”

    Zumba classes, weigh-ins around the holidays, smoking cessation counseling, portion control posters in the cafeteria, free Fitbits — is your work place suddenly getting a whole lot healthier?

    A majority of U.S. employers incorporate employee wellness programs to foster a healthy workplace, to lower healthcare costs, and to boost productivity. But the hurrah for health is making some employees uneasy.

    “Giving my employer the right to boss me around in the name of health is ethically suspect,” said medical ethicist Art Caplan, who added that he doesn’t mind an exercise room at work, or the promotion of health issues at work. But he says a lot of these programs go too far.

    For one, he questions the impetus behind workplace wellness programs. “The bosses motive is to save money, it’s not my health, I’d rather have somebody encouraging my health who is not connected to my pay check,” Caplan said.

    Caplan is Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center, and spent almost two decades at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Another question that bothers Caplan is time — when employees are supposed to engage in workplace wellness programs.

    “Yeah, the company is fine if you want to get on the treadmill, but it’s up to you to be there at 6 a.m. and at 8 p.m.,” he says. “Is that a way to keep you around work, or is it a way to make you healthy?”

    He also feels that penalizing “bad” behavior, such as smoking, by charging people higher health insurance premiums is tricky. “Are they penalizing people who ride horses, worried about people owning swimming pools where people slip and fall and cause all kinds of injuries?” he asked. “Picking on a vice is not fair, if you are going to penalize bad behavior, then you have to penalize equally risky behavior, and people don’t do that.”

    Caplan is also concerned about further blurring of boundaries between home and work. “It’s fine to encourage health, but I don’t want work coming into my home, saying ‘hey, you, get off that sofa and run around some more.’ This is my time!”

    Caplan says the fact that so many Americans receive their health care through work has created some complicated ties — where employers have an interest and stake in keeping health-care costs low. But putting “the boss in charge of your health record” as Caplan puts it, is not a good idea. “Let your doctor do that.”

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