Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wellness Program Incentives: A Look at Whole Foods' New Results Oriented Program

I’ve been interested in wellness incentives for a while and the debate over Whole Foods new discount program is fascinating. Some folks clearly just love to hate John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, probably not unrelated to the op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last summer. After we separate the message from the messenger, however, maybe there are some things that most could agree on.

Here’s what is posted on the Whole Foods Site about the program. It is part of a larger Program called Health Starts Here.
The Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive offers increased discounts for full- and part-time Team Members (enrolled in the company’s medical plan) who do not use nicotine products and satisfy certain healthy biometric criteria for blood pressure, total cholesterol (or LDL) levels and Body Mass Index (BMI). Team Members already receive a 20 percent discount on purchases at Whole Foods Market stores as an employment benefit, but now, those who voluntarily opt to participate in the incentive plan could receive up to an additional 10 percent discount. (From what I’ve read, you can have your screenings done at Whole Foods for free or have them done by your doctor and submit the results - JgM.)

The media focus has been on BMI and I agree that it is an incomplete measure of “health.” BMI makes no distinction between body weight from muscle and body weight from fat. Consider this; using only BMI as a measure, most professional athletes would be considered “overweight.” And even if we could agree on BMI as a measure, there are also studies that show that the current definitions of “obesity” and “overweight” are imprecise predictors of mortality risk (in fact, some studies show that older women with a low BMI have an increased mortality risk).

In part, I think people are reacting badly to the concept of a "pay for results" type of wellness program. Wellness programs that incent behavior by providing discounts to people that complete a health risk assessment are touted as non-intrusive and respectful. Critics say that if you pay for results, you’re invading the employee’s privacy and discriminating against people that aren’t “naturally thin.”

I ask this question, then; how is this different from our pay for performance programs? Some organizations pay people for the results they achieve (someone who earns a commission would be on the far end of this scale). Sometimes, through no fault of their own, their "numbers" aren’t so good (I’m sure anyone who works in real estate can relate to that in this economy), so they don’t make as much. Other organizations pay for behaviors -- they have a robust 360 degree feedback program and reward people for “how” they go about their work.

Of course, most programs fall somewhere in between. Is it undesirable, then, for companies to exert the same discretion in encouraging employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle? When we separate the message and the messenger, do we really object that much?

A business is seriously looking at how the health of its employees impacts the bottom line; they are not raising deductibles and copays to cut costs and are encouraging their employees to live healthier lives. According to this report published by the World Economic Forum, less than half of employees work for organizations that actively promote health and well-being. Fewer still work for organizations that see wellness as a strategic tool that can add real value to growth and bottom-line performance.

It sounds to me like Whole Foods is making workplace wellness essential (not a “nice” to do), and a central part of their business strategy. Now that’s encouraging. Is it perfect? From the outside, I have no idea, but I think we should consider this some more before we condemn the approach.


Tim Sackett said...

Janet -

I'm glad to see what Whole Foods is doing - they've always been an employer willing to get out of the box. We are never going to come up with a definition for wellness programs of "Healthy" that everyone will agree upon - it would be like getting all Americans to believe in one political party.

But in the end, employers need to be more aggressive in getting their employees healthy.

Nice post!

Motherwhatnow, Remix said...

I think you make some really good points--especially about people's other "numbers" on the job. I think that as long as employees aren't penalized for things they can't control (e.g. hereditary stuff like high cholesterol) programs like this would give an extra level of encouragement to employees to maintain healthy lifestyles.