Can a corporate wellness program be coercive?

I came across an article last week that got me thinking. The piece, “When Does Workplace Wellness Become Coercive?” resonates with me because I think I have the potential to, myself, become a coercer—and that may not be a bad thing.

I have a great idea that will make our population much healthier, but many will be angry with me when I share it: I want companies to receive monetary incentives from the federal government to hire and retain only non-smoking employees. I thought maybe a test could be developed (if it hasn’t already been created) in which a person blows or spits into a device that then gives a reading to register whether or not the person has smoked or consumed tobacco within the last month. Employers who receive the monetary incentive (maybe a steep tax break) would be required to administer this test randomly and on video (to prove it was done) and to terminate employees who test positive more than three times within three years. I have a feeling many people would quit if they knew their ability to earn a living was tied to their ability to stop smoking or otherwise consuming tobacco products.

However, I know how angry some will be at this idea. It’s just that, at least in its smoked form, tobacco affects all those who surround the smoker, even when it’s smoked outdoors. After Googling something like “the effects of second-hand smoke outdoors,” I read that tobacco was found in the saliva of non-smokers at an outdoor café after spending time there sitting next to smokers. Second-hand smoke is so poisonous that the children, and even the pets, of smokers have been proven to be at a higher risk of developing cancer and other diseases such as asthma.

The tie-in to corporate wellness is the belief by some that tobacco use, along with other risk factors such as obesity and lack of exercise, raise an employee’s health-care costs, and, by extension, the health insurance costs incurred by the employer. I’ve often heard this. Do you think this is a valid argument, or do you think bad health habits are not nearly so powerful in determining a company’s health insurance costs?

With the impact smoking, obesity, and inactivity can have on an employer’s health-care insurance costs, do you think it makes sense to have a program employees can sign up for to receive financial rewards for joining wellness programs? I don’t because not all employees require such programs—some of us are already at a medically healthy weight, eat not too terribly, and exercise quite a bit already (I walk five miles a day every day, thanks to a long on-foot trek to and fro from work and long walks on the weekend).

That’s why I like the idea of focusing on those with particular issues, such as tobacco use, for corporate employment-related wellness incentives (or “coercion”). I would recommend a similar program for obesity, but there’s no fair or simplistic way to punish people for being obese. Obesity is tied to more than just one action such as quitting smoking or stopping use of chewing tobacco. Its causes are too complex to levy punishments against. Inactivity also can be hard to monitor and punish because many have disabilities, injuries, or medical conditions that limit their ability to exercise.

Tobacco use, however, is much easier to monitor and penalize. I hope the federal government thinks about how corporations can be used to curb the smoking epidemic. Right now it’s illegal during the hiring process to even ask job candidates whether they smoke. At the very least, that has to change. It’s OK to send a message that you’re an employer who values healthy living, and that you prefer not to hire those who have a habit proven to cause so much sickness, including to those surrounding the smoker.

I’d like to not be an aspiring corporate wellness coercer, but I can’t help myself. Every time I walk to work and get second-hand smoke blown up my nose multiple times (every day), I’m reminded that there are ways that unhealthy habits of individuals affect all of us. Can smoking be a personal choice if it’s been proven to have an impact on those who just spend time around a smoker, or those who just hire one?

With the impact on work life, including higher health-care insurance costs to the employer and added stress on co-workers when sick days occur, it’s in a company’s interest to think about how it can incentivize its workforce to be healthy. You might be surprised how much better work life can be with healthier habits. You might find your next meeting a walk in the park, literally.

Does your company have a corporate wellness program of any kind? If so, are there financial incentives for employees to participate? Would you like to see yours become more “coercive?”