The language you use is important. People are people. Call them what they are.
I say this because of a common phrase I’ve come across occasionally in my health care research. I attended a webinar in which the speaker consistently referred to people as “cost-drivers.” Obese employees were referred to as “cost-drivers;” so were employees with diabetes. What does someone who is obese cost you compared to someone who is not obese, the moderator posed. This is a major pet peeve of mine in health care reporting — both the language used and the idea that a person’s health status could potentially influence a candidate’s perceived hireability for a company.
We’re all in the HR space here. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, too, have come across handfuls of headlines and articles about “putting the ‘human’ back in human resources.” I’d like to argue that when we’re talking about health care and health problems that need medical attention, let’s be careful to keep the “human” in mind, too.
There’s a person behind that health care cost, and you don’t know how much physical, mental or financial stress that health problem is putting on them. Stop acting like people’s health problems are more inconveniences for you than inconveniences for them.
Most people have some sort of cost-driving behavior, whether that’s smoking, not eating healthy enough, not sleeping enough or drinking too much coffee. Even people who work out, do yoga, practice mindfulness and eat healthy participate in some behavior that one might consider unhealthy. Most everyone has a health-related vice.
People should take responsibility for their own health, but adopting the perfect heath behaviors in every aspect of our lives is impossible. Every person, regardless of their health status, drives health care costs.
Yes, of course organizations have the responsibility to try to stay financially healthy, and a continuing, rising cost in many companies are health care expenses. It’s not surprising that businesses want to focus on decreasing health care costs, and it’s not negative that they want to do so.
Referring to employees as rusting machines that require constant maintenance rather than humans whose health problems are realistically more complex than a simple fix rubs me the wrong way. Ultimately, it’s an objectifying way to describe people. It comes across as a way to disregard the human behind the heath behavior.
Not long ago, a pre-existing condition was a valid reason for insurance companies to deny people coverage. And, with the future of health care legislation in the U.S. so uncertain, who knows what the future of this practice will be? Might employers possibly take a similar route and choose the healthiest candidates first, regardless of if they’re the best person for the job, to avoid those pesky, sick “cost drivers”?
That situation isn’t entirely ridiculous. For example, a few stories this past year have focused on the “potential nuances of a culture of health.” CNBC posted a story this past March about a health startup criticized online for being “cultish” and “fit supremacist.”
Corporate Wellness Magazine has published a feature about how companywide health goals and human needs can clash when things like weight-loss competitions and employees with eating disorders combine. Employees of a water company in Sweden risk lower wages if they don’t participate in a mandatory workout every week.
There has to be a way to mix financial responsibility and human understanding — at least if you truly do want to “put the ‘human’ back in human resources.”
My take on this: when you refer to a “cost driver,” make sure it’s a something and not a someone. And don’t let their status as a “cost driver” impact the value you place on them as an employee or as human beings.
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.