Health-contingent workplace wellness, the two-time darling of federal legislation codified in both the Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act (HIPAA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is now plagued by doubts about effectiveness and validity that are inexorably grinding away its legitimacy. This puts employers, particularly large employers who have committed to it so vocally and visibly, in an awkward spot. In the style of politicians nervously trying to change the terms of debate, wellness advocates are now walking back the assertions that have undergirded their entire construct for more than a decade. While some business leaders are apparently either unwilling or unable to back away from this self-inflicted wound, staying the present course is neither inevitable nor required. A course correction might actually prove quite liberating, especially for leaders of smaller and mid-sized businesses who must scratch their heads wondering how they’re supposed to reproduce a big-company style workplace wellness program or even why they should, given the dearth of data on effectiveness.
As a case in point, we offer GE, an iconic American multinational with 305,000 employees, $147BN in revenues, and $16.1BN in earnings worldwide in 2012. The company offers its employees a much-lauded wellness program, saluted by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) in a fawning 2009 case study. GE’s wellness program has several things to recommend it:
- A top line focus on environmental change
- An emphasis on strong and consistent positive health messaging to employees
- The “Health By The Numbers” strategy that asks employees to commit to essential behavior changes (don’t smoke, eat more produce, walk more, and maintain a healthy body mass index [BMI]; there is wisdom in these choices, as they are the baseline activities for good health)
Beyond these obviously beneficial wellness program components, the GE wellness program veers off into a compendium of wellness convention, with encouragement for employees to take HRAs and get screenings, in particular, mammography, colonoscopy, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Some of the affection for diagnostics springs, of course, from GE’s corporate commitment to health care, which includes selling a broad variety of diagnostic devices to medical care providers who must, in turn, induce demand in order to pay for their contribution to GE Healthcare’s $18.2BN revenue stream.
As far as is discernible from publicly available documents, the wellness program targets GE worksites with over 100 employees, and GE claims in the NBGH case report that over 90% of employees worldwide participate. Beyond these data, however, it is remarkably difficult to understand what results GE gets and at what cost. The only publicly available insight on expense comes from GE wellness leader Rachel Becker in an essay published online by EHS Journal, in which she reports $100,000 per site as the wellness startup cost. Extrapolating this figure to GE’s more than 600 global worksites produces a wellness capitalization expense of about $60M, which presumably does not include annual wellness program operating costs. This might be why GE makes absolutely no mention of the cost or results of its wellness program in either its annual report or its 10K filing, although the NBGH quotes GE as saying the implementation was “inexpensive”. Even though $60M is equal to only 0.38% of GE’s 2012 earnings, it nonetheless might seem an untidy sum to skeptical shareholders.