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The growing movement to track employee health

In an age when public companies are expected to be transparent, investors expect to get details on everything from new products a business has in the pipeline to new lawsuits it faces.

But one group is arguing that shareholders should know something that they say also has a bearing on a company's performance: the health of its employees. Companies with better workplace health programs are linked to better stock performance, according to Vitality, part of the financial services company Discovery Ltd.

A growing number of companies are starting to track their employees' health, similar to where organizations stood a decade ago in tracking workplace diversity and environmental impact, said Derek Yach, chief health officer of Vitality. Some workplaces already are making inroads by providing their employees with their own tracking devices, such as Fitbits, or offering wellness programs that can make a real impact on health, such as smoking-cessation plans.

Health data "isn't reported by many companies, but it is even more material to the bottom line of a company," Yach said from Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the 2016 World Economic Forum. "Workplace health drives the bottom line."

While that might be, many Americans might resist the idea of having their employers track their health -- from weight and cholesterol measurements to mental health issues -- fearing "Big Brother" is just one step behind.

In Vitality's plan, workplaces would track the information anonymously, so bosses wouldn't know specifics about employee treatment or health issues. That might not reassure workers, given that examples already abound of bosses singling out employees with costly health problems. Remember AOL CEO Tim Armstrong blaming increased costs on two workers for having "distressed babies"?

Employers already know some information about their workers' health, Yach said. Because they pay for workers' health care plans, at least at many companies in the U.S., they get data on costs and spending, which can indicate a workforce's health.

Adding employee health statistics to corporations' disclosures to shareholders also may have unintended consequences. Employers might want to hire younger, healthier workers in order to reduce their costs and deliver a better return to investors, for instance. Since older workers already can find it challenging to look for new jobs, an added layer of health-conscious pressure from top executives might not help this group.

Yach says the law would protect workers from such discrimination if health-based metrics were to be adopted in corporate reporting. Yet age discrimination can be tough to prove, according to the AARP.

Vitality is working with a group of executives from companies such as IBM (IBM) and Merck (MRK) on the best practices for reporting workplace health metrics, and Yach is attending the Word Economic Forum to talk with corporate leaders about the idea. Companies with higher-paid and better educated workforces, such as IBM, would likely have the resources and willingness to help their workers get healthier, but how would it play out for low-wage employers like Walmart (WMT) or McDonald's (MCD)?

There's room in every workplace for better health approaches, Yach said.

Take truckers, for instance. "They face huge numbers of obesity and smoking rates, but it doesn't mean you can't rethink what the truck stop means," he said.