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Experts' comments turn wellness CW on its ear

By Kelley M. Butler, Editor in Chief - EmployeeBenefit News
June 1, 2011

For the last five years or so, the conventional wisdom on wellness programs is that health risk assessments and biometric screenings are the way to get the best data on employee health status, you have to juice participation by offering incentives, and you have to be prepared to spend a pretty penny to get tangible results.

However, in just the last few weeks, two professionals have told me the exact opposite: that starting wellness programs can be cheap, incentives are unnecessary, and HRAs are flawed and, in fact, can be dangerous for your wellness efforts.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme song.

In a recent conversation with Danna Korn, CEO and co-founder of Sonic Boom Wellness in Carlsbad, Calif., she had this to say about incentives: "We're adamantly against using cash and gift cards, because people can easily go out and spend it on donuts and cigarettes and forget how or why they earned it. We feel more strongly about trophy-value prizes; people put that $4 water bottle on their desk and [coworkers say], 'Whoa, you must have gotten to level Mock 1 on Sonic Boom!' There's recognition that's far more effective than bribery."

Korn has an even lower opinion of health risk assessments, saying that: "We would argue that not only are health risk assessments unnecessary, but they can actually be dangerous, because [a participant could be] giving an answer that you know is the 'right' answer, but isn't a truthful answer. Then, you get this great wellness report and think, 'Wow, I'm really in great shape! I don't need to make any changes in my lifestyle.' It gives a completely false sense of health status, both on an individual and on an aggregate level."

Interesting, no? Noodle that for a while, then head over to BenefitsTV (ebn.benefitnews.com/video) to see our segment with Michael Davis, senior vice president of HR at General Mills, who talks about his company strategies toward employee health, productivity and well-being. Around the three-minute mark, Davis says that wellness programs can be - gasp! - inexpensive to launch.

"A lot of the first, second and third steps in wellness don't need to cost a lot of money. To build in walking meetings doesn't cost any money ... putting up signs to talk about healthy choices in the cafeteria doesn't cost a lot of money. If you really want to think about wellness, you don't have to think about money; you just have to think creatively."

When I asked readers over at EBN's blog, the Daily Diversion about Korn's and Davis's comments, I received a wide range of responses.

Commenter Roslyn Stone writes, "I wholeheartedly agree with Korn. The average employee who completes an HRA does nothing with the information gained and often distrusts their employer who required it. The employee who was already motivated to make lifestyle changes or already is a marathon runner doesn't need an HRA or incentives. Group activities and the social rewards that come with participating with coworkers is the most successful incentive we see."

Another commenter, LHF, concurs: "HRAs tell the individual and the organization the same thing year after year: eat less and move more. Let's put those dollars into creating healthy work cultures through policy and environment supports. Then we solve the participation problem - we reach everyone."

However, not all blog readers are convinced by Davis and Korn's arguments. Commenter szarz is downright dismissive: "Seriously? Walking meetings as a replacement for HRAs? What planet are these people from? Certainly not the one that our employees inhabit."

And Playbass64 agrees that "HRAs by themselves are not effective," but adds "you don't write off using a hammer because you smash your thumb; it's still a useful tool for building or repairing a house. Same thing with an HRA - it takes a little thoughtful use to get results. Hammers don't build houses by themselves, and they are pretty useless if you don't add a healthy dose of nails."

What do you think? Can launching a wellness initiative be as inexpensive as Davis says? Do you agree with Korn that HRAs can be dangerous? Don't miss my full Q&A with Korn and the final part of EBN's Preparing for Open Enrollment series - which features benefits pros' advice for when and how to launch a wellness program - in the upcoming June 15 EBN. Meantime, send me your comments at kelley.butler@sourcemedia.com.