Test Alert: Making Wellness Screenings Work

Workplace wellness screenings can be rewarding for both the employee and employer when carefully selected and strategically deployed. Before adding tests to their workplace wellness programs, among the questions that employers can ask include: “How does this screening benefit my employees, and is it necessary? Is the workplace an appropriate place to conduct this screening? Do we have the resources available to respond to the test results?”

Screenings for common issues like high blood pressure, blood glucose level, and high cholesterol can be beneficial for employees varying in age and health status, and are rarely harmful. In fact, “they may be the only medical attention some employees receive,” writes Joanne Sammer in a recent Society for Human Resource Management article. An employee without a primary care doctor might not know that he needs to control his blood pressure or how to do it. If his employer can share testing results and subsequently provide guidance and support to make positive changes, such as a diet recommendations or a fitness tracker, then that employee is one step closer to better wellbeing.

Regular testing can also help employers save time and resources by getting employees the help they need to maintain their wellbeing and performance. For example, some employees of a hotel chain discontinued their blood pressure medications because of increased copays.

Sammer writes: “A routine blood pressure screening identified those employees, who were then offered help [in] finding affordable medications. In such cases, employees get the care they need and employers avoid the high costs associated with complications that arise when chronic conditions go untreated.”

Of course, screenings are only as successful as the support provided to an employee after she receives the results. If an employer is only using screenings to reward or punish employees without providing opportunities and resources to change their unhealthy behaviors, then screenings can go awry and appear overly intrusive.

As Carey Goldberg reports on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog, data suggest that workplace wellness programs should focus on building “intrinsic motivation” in employees to adopt healthier behaviors rather than “extrinsic” incentives, which can actually reduce employee job satisfaction and engagement. Yet, she reports, it’s increasingly common for large employers to add requirements to their wellness programs over time, moving from simple lifestyle surveys in the first year to BMI measurement in the second, to blood panels in the third.

Before adopting a new screening, employers should be prepared to respond to employees’ needs themselves or refer them to people who can. More extensive tests for conditions that require intense clinical guidance and treatment, like prostate cancer or thyroid conditions, can be particularly controversial if the appropriate physicians and services are not in place. If an employee tests positive for one of these conditions in the workplace—or worse, receives the test results in the mail — he or she might not be able to have an immediate conversation with a physician about what to do next, Sammer writes.

In short, screenings can be beneficial when chosen strategically and implemented carefully, but can have negative consequences if added to a wellness program in a rushed, superficial, or unprepared manner. When considering specific screenings, employers should ask whether they are appropriate for their employees, setting, and workplace capacities.