Tech

Amazon Shows the Way on Wellness — Treat People like Adults

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Since 2000, the government and healthcare industry have sold Americans a bill of goods called workplace wellness, which turns out to have been a colossal waste of billions of dollars.

Most of this money was spent bribing employees to do things that they don’t want to do, such as submit to biometrics, answer intrusive health risk appraisals, and get preventive medical care.

The marketing pitch that wellness makes people healthier and lowers medical care costs, and thus, produces a return on investment for the employer, isn’t true. Wellness also allowed companies to position themselves as employee-friendly, even while wages stagnated and employees morphed into fungible widgets, instead of vital assets in whom employers invested for years or decades.

However, it looks to us as though at least one major US company is treating economic reality seriously, and, consequently, asking its employees to act like adults.

Let’s look at wellness by Amazon.com, which has apparently avoided conventional wellness whole cloth. Despite our best research efforts, we find no evidence that the company makes conventional wellness programming a priority for employees.

It’s a bit ironic that they don’t given the recent spate of tough publicity about the company’s employment practices.

Amazon has been lambasted lately for the plight of the warehouse workers who animate its backroom operation, where constant video surveillance, productivity demands, and getting your bag searched before you go home are the norms. Message boards also detail the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the company’s white collar space, which raises, in our minds, the pointed question of why haven’t they done wellness?

We think it’s because Amazon’s philosophy about work is straightforward: if you work here, expectations are high and relentless. Amazon’s approach to employee well-being seems to be to not have one other than we invite you to grow with us. This is counter-cultural, and it has more to recommend it than first appears obvious.

When you are competing against Walmart and Target, remaining lean and low-cost is critical; wellness drives costs up, not down.

Expecting many staff to work 50, 60, or even 70 hours per week leaves little time for discretionary visits to the doctor that are pointless even before they happen because this superfluous care will save neither lives nor money. When you are not pouring money into coercing employees to join a wellness program, you preserve capital needed to optimize the technologies and product mix that help you grab market share and crush competitors like Best Buy.

Amazon’s corporate environment isn’t for everyone, and leadership appears to recognize that, too, with a new initiative that will actually pay people to leave. Letting people find their way out, or even to a new career on Amazon’s dime, treats people like adults by letting them choose their own path with modest support while they do it. Amazon doesn’t report its medical care spending data and, frankly, we hope they never do. They’re clearly concentrating on more mundane items, such as growing their nearly 25% gross profit margin.

In our view, there are a few things that Amazon could do to treat its people better without damaging growth. Amazon might take a few hints from wellness programs that do work and give people the opportunity to do some things that make them feel good.

They can ensure the food served in warehouses is healthy and inexpensive; give people frequent breaks during the day, and maybe even allow time for short naps; use the layout of the warehouses to build low-cost circuit training loops and actually encourage people to use them. Make sure all employees have access to a fitness facility either onsite or through a subsidized membership.

They could use drones to air-drop healthy snacks to employees in fulfillment periodically throughout the day.

The takeaway is simple: If Amazon’s approach to employee well-being isn’t your preferred operating system, don’t work there. Just because it’s a tough place to work doesn’t make it a toxic place to work, and we submit that the population of Amazon employees are largely a self-selected group who know what they’re getting into.

Treating people like adults and having transparent, adult-like expectations might be the best form of wellness after all.

Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness.  An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog.  He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.

Al Lewis is the author of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, co-author of Cracking Health CostsHow to Cut Your Company’s Health Costs and Provide Employees Better Care, and president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium.

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Andrew TAl LewisBob HertzBecky BlantonPeter1 Recent comment authors
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Andrew T
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Andrew T

Having no interest in reading this entire thread, I’d just like to point out that Jeff Bezos has made enormous investments in Qliance- a comprehensive health care service, which includes many preventive care services. This idea put forth that preventive care does not save money is at very least hyperbolic. I can’t speak to evidence or success of broadly implemented employee wellness programs, as I’m inclined to suspect those may target people who have no perceptible benefit from them, (so surprise! limited benefits) but numerous lifestyle intervention programs (when implemented in cost-effective group settings as documented in translational studies) have… Read more »

Andrew T
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Andrew T

My apologies, I should specify I don’t if Qliance provides a Diabetes Prevention Program service, but I beileve from their short descriptions their provide self managment education, and I willing to bet they provide smoking cessation resources, the latter being fairly standard in my understanding.

Al Lewis
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Al Lewis

These are all very interesting threads. I would add one observation to the “volitional” argument, which can be used in a reductio ad absurdum about any job. The difference is that other companies don’t pay you to leave if you don’t like your job.

Peter1
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Peter1

“The difference is that other companies don’t pay you to leave if you don’t like your job.” Maybe the policy has more to say about the availability of alternate work than about Amazon’s “kindness”. This incentive to leave does not mean any employee is not performing their duties to expectations – otherwise they could be fired. It would help to understand the type of employee Amazon is hiring. If the work is so mind numbing and pressure cooked then it would only be attractive to the under educated in (more) economically depressed areas. That’s where the meat processing industry locates… Read more »

Bob Hertz
Guest

Mr Khanna asks how many people at Amazon work against their will……. He might benefit by reading Michael Walzer on “trades of last resort” and “desperate exchanges.” When a woman resorts to prostitution to feed her children, often in wartime but in peacetime poverty also, she is technically not enslaved. But she is pushed into making a repulsive free trade that a compassionate society would try to make unnecessary. Where workers are organized, a job which is demanding and exhausting will pay higher wages. I have no problem with the free market working in that instance. Of course in agriculture… Read more »

@BobbyGvegas
Guest

Where’s the “like” button?

Bob Hertz
Guest

My impression is that Amazon is a non union nightmare.

Anyone versed in German or Swedish labor law would find many aspects of Amazon to be utterly unbelievable.

Especially the frequent firing of older and slower workers, if in fact that is what happens.

The utter lack of job security and tenure might make the bosses happy, but most nations outside the Third World and China place far more restrictions on what management can do.

Becky Blanton
Guest
Becky Blanton

Unfortunately that’s the problem. Industrial engineers are not SOCIAL engineers. Engineers look at the physical and tech solutions. They don’t work with people. It’s been my experience as a service provider that engineers are the most difficult people to work with when it comes to social issues and people problems. They don’t, or can’t, factor in the human element. Engineers also like to believe that a simple employee doesn’t have the skill, knowledge or expertise to create anything better than they can envision, so they don’t listen to the input of anyone who isn’t an engineer or architect. They tend… Read more »

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

Not denying, just questioning deeper – like any good “journalist”.

“tells me you (1) either work for Amazon, or (2) are an engineer or troll or all of the above.”

Good journalists don’t assume or guess anything – as they would usually wrong, as you are.

“so I won’t be responding further”

Good “journalists” don’t have closed minds, or do they think they know everything they need to know.

@BobbyGvegas
Guest

“Either way, this conversation isn’t beneficial to me beyond this last post, so I won’t be responding further.”
__

Just as well. Your comments seem rather confused. So, does Amazon treat their workers as “adults” (the core assertion of Vik and Al’s post) or do they treat them like the intractable deserving-of-the-panopticon juvenile delinquents your comments make them out to be?

BTW, “social engineering” has a specific IT definition that escapes you. You really mean “I/O psychologists.”

Becky Blanton
Guest
Becky Blanton

What’s your interest?

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

I just don’t take your description of your experience at face value and the judgement that they were all lazy and stupid.

Amazon would probably have used industrial engineers to design a time/motion analysis of the steps necessary to complete tasks. It can be easy for a short termer to think how easy it is but is different for someone having to do it day in and day out. These are also the considerations of industrial engineers. The processes were not decided on willy nilly by floor workers.

That’s my interest.

Becky Blanton
Guest
Becky Blanton

I actually worked at the Kentucky fulfillment center as a temp while I was also a reporter for the local paper. I was in the warehouse, packing and picking and working the hard jobs. The work is NOT that hard, unless you’re lazy. Within a week I was actually exceeding the performance standards and being told to “slow down” because it made everyone else look bad and would result in Amazon upping their quotas. The goal of the workers seemed to be to slow things down, bitch and moan and complain. That wasn’t the worst. The worst part was showing… Read more »

Peter1
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Peter1

“I actually worked at the Kentucky fulfillment center as a temp”

What were your hours?

Becky Blanton
Guest
Becky Blanton

Third shift.

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

Hours in 3rd shift and for how many days/week over how long as temp?

Paul Slobodian
Guest

As vp of human resources and quality at a high tech manufacturing company we closely tracked productivity….sales/employee and net income/employee….and we did employee satisfction surveys every year and used them to identify units where there were problems….and we made sure that the manager of the unit in question took corrective action. We could not find another manufacturing company in the US who came close to our workers’ productivity….and employee satisfaction was high. People like being on a winning team….people like working hard and being productive. People like being treated as adults. That is far more important than promoting wasteful “feel… Read more »

Vik Khanna
Guest

We think you are correct, and it is likely one reason that large firms like Intel have dropped wellness, and we believe GE either has or will soon, but has not yet said so publicly.

@BobbyGvegas
Guest

Kim il Bezos __ Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and… Read more »

@BobbyGvegas
Guest

“Amazon Shows the Way on Wellness — Treat People like Adults”
__

Unfortunate, Irony-Free Zone post title, in light of the apparent reality in the trenches at Amazon.

Vik Khanna
Guest

Bobby: we don’t condone any of the practices described in the articles you quote, which we were aware of when writing the post. Nor do we condone violating OSHA standards, and Amazon and its contractors should be brought to task for violations. The fact remains, however, that the decision of whether or not to work at Amazon is volitional. As is the decision to shop Amazon. If the practices are so odious that they strike a negative chord with the consuming public, then maybe Amazon will feel additional pressure to change its practices. We suspect, however, that the consuming public… Read more »

@BobbyGvegas
Guest

“we don’t condone any of the practices described in the articles you quote” Understood. A book, actually. I have no doubt they’d sue Simon Head for libel were it not materially factual. “the decision of whether or not to work at Amazon is volitional” Understood as well. albeit just a tad theoretical in an economy where, in the aggregate, job-seekers still outnumber jobs by a ratio of 3:1 (and probably a lot higher in that particular labor pool cohort). In Brad Stone’s Amazon/Bezos bio “The Everything Store,” The boss makes no bones about his “love it or leave it” attitude… Read more »

Vik Khanna
Guest

Bobby: I hate to say it, but I am probably more like Jeff Bezos than I would like to admit. If I ran a company, I would likely do it like the steamroller that I am. Keep up or go run with someone else. Now, the difference between me and Bezos is that I would empower people to build the strength to keep up, bind expectations with common sense, and I would be fiercely loyal to those who really tried and pushed themselves. There would be abundant fitness opportunities, lots of healthy food and a culture that would make junk… Read more »

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

Thanks for the reality check Bobby. There’s always a cost, only good if someone else bears it. Wellness also includes workplace mental health I would think. Your point about “volitional” work smacks at the early 1800s textile worker having “volitional” work. Vik tends to exist in a Utopian myth much of the time it seems. I think from a customer’s point of view Amazon excels the way I wish more companies did – I do a lot of buying from them. Many other brick and mortor survive now due to size and market control – which amazon does not take… Read more »

Vik Khanna
Guest

How many people work at Amazon against their will?

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

How many jobs versus job seekers are there?

Bubba For President
Guest
Bubba For President

Counter intuitive, this

William Palmer MD
Guest
William Palmer MD

Having a little expert health advice aroung the workplace can save oodles.
I’m talking about experienced MDs or NPs or PAs who know to keep people with shingles at home. Impetigo. Early flu symptoms. You don’t need much else. After all, the culture sends information to people by osmosis…like don’t smoke and try to keep weight and blood pressure controlled. You don’t want to be dumb and allow people with fevers, e.g., to come to work. Exercise is a little overrated: exercise like crazy for years and you die about 18 months later.

Vik Khanna
Guest

Actually, we are unaware of evidence that having “a little expert health advice around the workplace can save oodles.” It might be useful, help head off an occasional preventable issue, but the saving of oodles, which sounds like a technical term from the wellness literature, is pretty speculative. We agree that the culture and what it transmits to people is key. We would disagree about the health and economic benefits of exercise. In fact, nothing is more underrated, misunderstood, or underappreciated by employers, wellness advocates, and the medical community. Outside of serving healthier foods at subsidized prices, there is no… Read more »

William Palmer MD
Guest
William Palmer MD

The problem with exercise is a theoretical one: it’s bound to increase entropy and entropy must have some relation to aging. But empirically you are right, Vik. It does seem to improve survival by somewhere between 18 months and 5 years. Lots of studies. See MedLine.

The reason it increases entropy is that you are adding heat to a closed system by a chemical reaction of ATP==ADP.

Vik Khanna
Guest

Exercise, oh exercise, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. Well, there’s actually only one that matters: nothing does so much to improve nearly everything that is of value. The aramamentarium of medicine is so meager by comparison that the word pathetic is too grand. Thermodynamics being a pursuit beyond the ken of most people, the bottom line is that exercise makes people feel better. That’s what every employer should want. And, yes, I’m glad you noted that the longevity benefit ranges up to five years. But, it’s the quality of life impact and compression of morbidity… Read more »