What’s wrong with wellness program incentives? ROI isn’t proven, employees feel forced into participation, and worse, wellness programs can increase weight-based discrimination and stigma in the workplace, which results in increased obesity and decreased well-being.

Workplace wellness programs have long been criticized as ineffective and lacking ROI, but financial incentives for wellness program participation are even more controversial.

Depending on what the financial incentive is, failing to participate could cost an employee hundreds or thousands of dollars. It then becomes a question of whether participation is truly voluntary, or if employees are being coerced.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) set a limit for what employers could offer employees to join in on wellness programs in 2016 (30 percent of an employee’s health insurance costs). Earlier this year, a judge vacated that arbitrary limit and the EEOC said it would not produce a new number until 2021.

That means there aren’t specific guidelines for employers putting together next year’s wellness benefits to follow. It’s worth considering whether incentivizing program participation is a good idea or just a waste of money.

New research from Frontiers in Psychology found wellness programs can actually lead to increased obesity and decreased well-being. Programs that put the responsibility on employees made them believe their weight is blameworthy. It led to increased weight-based discrimination and stigma in the workplace, a consequence surely no employer intended.

Wellness programs framed from an organizational standpoint were able to avoid increased stigma. What does that look like? An employer providing healthy snacks, standing desks, or offering reimbursements for gym memberships gives employees opportunities to improve their health without shaming them, versus ‘biggest loser’ challenges that are sure to make employees more self-conscious and could fuel disordered eating habits.

Employers look to wellness programs to reduce astronomical healthcare costs and take back some of the $530 billion that poor employee health costs in lost productivity from nearly 1.4 billion days of missed work each year. However, most employers now realize offering wellness programs isn’t enough. Employee engagement with wellness benefits is low, which is why providing a financial incentive for participation seems like a great idea (and in some cases, it still can be).

Nearly 20 percent of employees are either unaware of or don’t understand how to use the wellness benefits their employer offers. Clear benefits communication is vital to program success, and a process to improve before offering financial incentives for participation. Employees need to know what’s being offered, and more importantly how it works and who to contact if they have questions.

Unless conflicting research emerges proving significant ROI for employers who provide wellness benefits initiatives, employers are better off spending those funds elsewhere. A focus on improving benefits communication and creating a culture that encourages healthy habits has the potential to boost job satisfaction, productivity and reduce employer healthcare costs. Organizational and procedural changes might require some effort, but they’re low-cost solutions to the issue of benefits engagement.