A recent blog on HBR.org proposed to deliver “The Cure for the Common Corporate Wellness Program.” But as with any prescription, you really shouldn’t swallow this one unless all your questions about it have been answered. As a physician, a patient, and a businessman, I see plenty to question in Al Lewis and Vik Khanna’s critique of workplace wellness initiatives.
With their opening generalization that “many wellness programs” are deeply flawed, the authors dismiss a benefit enjoyed by a healthy majority of America’s workers. Today, nearly 80% of people who work for organizations with 50 or more employees have access to a wellness program, according to a 2013 RAND study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s not clear whether the authors are intentionally dismissing or simply misunderstanding the wealth of data that shows how wellness programs benefit participating employees. The RAND study summarizes it this way: “Consistent with prior research, we find that lifestyle management interventions as part of workplace wellness programs can reduce risk factors, such as smoking, and increase healthy behaviors, such as exercise. We find that these effects are sustainable over time and clinically meaningful.”
Lewis and Khanna, however, don’t focus on such findings. Instead, they question the motives of a company for even offering a wellness program, which they slam as an “employee control tool” and “a marketing tool for health plans.” And, in perhaps the most baffling statement of all, the authors suggest that workplace wellness initiatives are “trying to manipulate health behaviors that are largely unrelated to enterprise success” (emphasis mine).
Let’s consider that piece by piece. What are the behaviors that corporate wellness initiatives are trying to influence? According to the RAND study, the most common offerings — available in roughly 75% of all wellness initiatives — are on-site vaccinations and “lifestyle management” programs for smoking cessation, weight loss, good nutrition, and fitness. In short, companies want to reduce the risk that their workers will get the flu, develop lung cancer, or suffer from the many debilitating conditions linked to overweight and a sedentary lifestyle. How could these initiatives be deemed “largely unrelated” to the company’s success?