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A Publication of WTVP

Sometimes, it seems, the workplace is like a hospital. People who are sick and ought to be home drag themselves into the office. People at home claim to be ill and should be at work. Some workers live unhealthy lives by smoking, being overweight or using illicit drugs. Some have unhealthy family members who are costly to insure—if insurance is even offered. Some businesses actively promote health. Others figure that health is workers’ personal business.

To add to the complexity of the issue of health and workplace access, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires most businesses to accommodate people with various challenges, whether physical, mental or, possibly, emotional in nature. In some ways, accommodation has become easier since there are more adaptive devices that make it easier for a person to see, hear and move around. But some workplaces still struggle with the ethics of accommodation. Employers still weigh the perceived costs of people with permanent disabilities.

Any person, however, may encounter ethical challenges in workplace health. One large employer recently faced a legal challenge when it attempted to implement an anti-obesity policy. Workers were not to exceed a certain weight and body fat level based on national averages. All employees were to be weighed. As of that date, they were to set weight-loss goals in a certain period of time. In-house nutrition seminars would be offered. Healthier foods would be provided in the company cafeteria. Incentives would be offered to begin exercise programs. But, in the end, the employees had to take action—or face dismissal.

Some observers said that this policy was unethical. How does obesity affect job performance? Isn’t one’s physical condition his or her own business? How can an employer mandate this measurement of health and fitness? Studies show that nearly two-thirds of adults in this country are overweight. Nearly a third of this group is morbidly obese. Obesity can be the doorway into many chronic physical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Dealing with these problems can increase insurance costs and absenteeism.

The ethical clash here is clearly between workplace standards and costs and one’s personal responsibility. But some argue that obesity can be outside of a person’s control. The same argument has been made regarding “smokers’ rights” and nicotine addiction. Smoking also has an impact on others in the workplace if they have to deal with secondhand smoke. This view reflects the “greater good” ethical argument.

This issue will become even more important as baby boomers age and younger employees mature. Why? Because, as a nation, we really do face serious, costly problems due to our poor physical condition. While workplaces cannot mandate optimal physical condition, they can strongly encourage employees to take better care of themselves. In the end, though, every individual has to address his or her physical condition and develop better habits which promote personal wellness. iBi

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