Editor's note: This is the first article in a three-part series on the evolution of employee wellness programs. Future installments will be presented on Nov. 17 and Dec. 15.
A midsize paper-supply company offers three extra vacation days to employees at whichever of its branches collectively loses the most weight in seven weeks. Workers at one branch in Scranton, Pa., take extreme measures to win the contest. One eats only grilled chicken breast and diet soda, another swallows what she thinks is a tapeworm, and a third replaces the vending machine junk food with fruits and vegetables, which quickly rot, attracting flies. Some workers rebel by sneaking a cheesecake into the supply room.
Midway through the contest, all branches are failing to lose weight, so the company boosts the reward to five extra vacation days. If we stay fat long enough, we may actually get a whole month off, remarks the human resources manager at the Scranton branch. Ultimately, the Utica, N.Y., branch wins the contest, but one Scranton employee decides he will reward himself by taking the week off anyway.
If this sounds like a farce of a workplace wellness program, youre right. Its the storyline of the season premiere of the NBC comedy The Office. But it illustrates what many say are the entrenched problems with workplace wellness programsthat they offer the wrong incentives, with inadequate coaching and guidance, and without clear goals to achieve better health outcomes and productivity.
The strong need to reduce soaring healthcare costs is driving employers to rethink wellness programs. Its also leading to a complete overhaul of how these programs are structured, with more focus on individual counseling and even, in some cases, penalties for unhealthy workers.
There are lots of programs out there but not a lot of results, says Michael Thompson, a principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which advises major employers on wellness programs. You need big cultural changes, so it becomes part of the way employers talk and act.
Wellness programs have been around for decades. They can include everything from flu shots to gym membership discounts to weight management programs, healthy eating incentives, health risk questionnaires, online health monitoring tools and individual healthcare coaching sessions. Increasingly, employers are offering financial and other incentives to drive participation and results. Some 63% of employers surveyed by human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates this year said that they do provide or plan to provide workers with incentives such as lower healthcare premiums in exchange for participation. And while most employees are on the honor system, more employers are requiring that workers prove they completed these programs.
Another 17% of employers surveyed by Hewitt said they already do or plan to charge higher premiums to workers engaging in negative health behaviors such as smoking, and 40% said that they are considering such measures.