Voluntary health assessments and the art of persuasion

Five minutes into a first date, jitters surge through your bloodstream as your voice trembles out a shaky beverage order. Then, before your drink even hits the table, your date flashes a flirty smile, leans across the table and asks, “How many times in the past year have you used a prescription medication for nonmedical reasons?”

If you think that scenario could only come from a Love Connection disaster story, consider that your employees might feel a similar sense of shock when you ask them to volunteer for a health risk assessment. The reason has to do with the social rules that govern personal disclosures.

It’s risky to share private information with another person, so we tend to make such disclosures very carefully. Think about the last time you encountered a relatively unfiltered person who seemed too willing to share personal information. It probably felt uncomfortable for you. Conversely, being asked a direct personal question can feel downright threatening. That’s why the notion of leading off a date with a probing personal question seems painfully invasive.

That’s also why your employees may be cautious when you ask them to participate in a health assessment that’s chock-full of personal questions related to medical history, eating habits, drug use, even sexual conduct. If they aren’t sure who has access to their responses or how their information will be used, the threat of disclosure looms even larger. If you’re looking for creative ways to overcome these challenges, consider brushing up on a communication principle called “social penetration theory.”

Social penetration theory suggests that if you want someone to feel comfortable sharing private information, the worst thing you can do is come right out and ask them for it. Instead, the theory recommends you should start by telling them something equally personal about yourself. If you’re interested in digging into the details, Communication Studies has a nice primer on their website.

There’s a critical implication here if you want employees to participate in voluntary health screenings: the company should initiate the request by telling employees something private. Don’t worry — that doesn’t mean asking your CEO to disclose a series of personal details in a firmwide speech, although that could make for a memorable address. Instead, it means the organization should practice transparency with regard to the purpose and nature of the assessments.

While there’s no tried-and-true prescription for exactly how this should be done, a successful effort should answer the following four questions, in order:

1. What does the company get out of the assessment?

2. Who will see the information?

3. Is it normal for companies to request health assessments?

4. What’s in it for employees?

What does the company get out of the assessment?

If you want people to trust you quickly, it helps to lay your cards on the table first. Being candid about the organization’s motives for offering health assessments will make subsequent claims about employee benefits seem more believable. If, on the other hand, you lead off with employee benefits, doubters may find it easier to tune out the message if they suspect ulterior motives.

Explain to employees the purpose of the health assessment is to save the company money while offering attractive benefits. Share the results of a renowned study published in Health Affairs, which found companies that participate in health assessments save up to six dollars on every dollar they spend. Describe how the company can invest these savings into a more robust benefits package that helps attract and retain exceptional talent like them — it never hurts to butter up the audience, after all!

As Jim Purcell from the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Transparency is key, and employers should open the books, showing employees the true cost of health care coverage borne by the employer, how those numbers have changed, and the projected trajectory in the future if something doesn’t shift.”

Who will see the information?

Because the assessment asks employees to share relatively personal information, it’s natural for them to wonder who they’re sharing it with. Informing your employees of the measures that safeguard their privacy can go a long way toward assuaging their concerns.

For starters, you can tell employees that HIPAA and the ADA expressly prohibit your company from using the results of health assessments except as part of your wellness program. Explain the information is used to create a picture of the aggregate health of the company’s employees. In turn, this firm wide picture of health is used to help your company and employees save money on health care.

If employees are aware that a trusted third party is collecting their data, they may be more likely to believe their privacy is protected, which may lead to increased participation. Ask your health care provider if they partner with insured groups to facilitate assessments, so employees can submit responses directly to them. Our sponsor, Security Health Plan, frequently assists in the administration of health assessments to help protect both employers and employees.

The situation is a little different for companies with self-funded, self-administered health plans. If this describes your company, then someone on your staff already has access to employees’ health information. This fact may cause some employees to feel concerned, so you may want to spell out the legal obligations requiring your company to keep health information separate from other employment records, and to limit staff access to that data.

Whatever your company’s specific policies, trust that honesty is the best policy when it comes to assuring your employees their privacy is valued. If employees understand the company’s motive is to improve overall wellness and reduce health care costs — not to acquire access to personal medical information — they may be more likely to participate in health screenings.

Is it normal for companies to request health assessments?

HR professionals know voluntary health assessments are growing in popularity, but employees may still regard the request as unusual. It should help to normalize the request if you explain to them just how common the practice has become.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundations 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey, 59 percent of large firms offer workers a health risk assessment that “asks questions about their medical history, health status and lifestyle.” This number, up from 24 percent in 2013, shows just how quickly health risk assessments are growing in popularity.

Informing your employees of these statistics will position your company among a moderate-but-growing majority. This frames your company’s practices as both progressive and accepted, which may increase employees’ comfort level with the very notion of voluntary health assessments.

What’s in it for the employees?

There’s a reason you’re encouraged to save this question for last. Unless you first explain how health assessments help the company, convincing employees the assessments are offered for their own good might be like trying to ice skate uphill. If, however, you start by showing them everything behind the curtain, they might be more likely to accept your claims.

Although there are several ways an employee can benefit from participation in a health assessment, start by focusing on two that figure to be the most impactful — saving money and improving health. It’s important to note these benefits are closely related.

There is no question health assessments have the potential to help employees improve their health. For starters, the results of the assessments provide employees with a snapshot of their current health. This is a critical starting point because, according to the Wellness Council of America, “most employees have no idea what their current health status is.”

Once a summary of current health has been established, other wellness resources can be introduced. For example, tobacco cessation programs can be offered to employees who self-identify as regular smokers. Weight management tools can be shared with employees whose responses are predictive of diabetes risk.

One of the most powerful benefits offered by many wellness programs is access to health coaches. These health care professionals specialize in helping employees enact positive health behavior changes by providing them with individualized attention and motivation. HR-Playbook recently published an article discussing how health coaches help improve wellness.

Healthy employees can save their companies money if they file fewer claims and show measurable progress toward wellness goals. Both outcomes can directly reduce a company’s health care premium. In turn, the company can choose to reward employees by passing savings back to them. The result is something every employee should appreciate — better health and a smaller monthly deduction from every paycheck.

Voluntary health assessments are a key component for igniting a process that can benefit both your company and your employees. To improve volunteer rates, treat these assessments like you would treat a request for a personal disclosure. Understand that to get information, you may first have to give it.

If you’d like further support implementing voluntary health assessments for your employees, you can partner with our sponsor, Security Health Plan. Contact them today to discuss your specific goals or call 800–622–7790. Still not convinced health assessments are right for your company? This article offers three reasons that might change your mind.