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February 26, 2018

Ethics of Workplace Wellness Industry

Summary:

Landmark article debunks wellness industry's claims of ROI and shows that coercive programs can actually harm employees.

Photo Courtesy of Pexels

Wellness is back in the news these days. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s controlled trial invalidating a Harvard study that has been used to claim major benefits from wellness programs and the surprise decision in the AARP v. EEOC case disallowing large financial inducements for “voluntary” programs both received national attention. Further, WillisTowersWatson’s quiet revelation that most employees really dislike wellness programs marks the first time anyone in the industry has ever acknowledged that, absent bribes and fines, few employees would submit to their HR people playing doctor.

By way of background, all these recent “findings” – the lack of savings from wellness programs, need for inducements, and the employee resentment – were quite clear to me in my roles at British Petroleum, Burger King and Walmart over three decades.

Along with Al Lewis, I brought this experience (and many others, such as the much more positive and increasingly popular domestic medical travel program) to public view in our book “Cracking Health Costs,” which continues to sell – and, more importantly, continues to resonate — five years after publication.

Largely because of the news hooks above, there have lately been a flurry of references to a comprehensive, scholarly article by that very same Al Lewis. Al, of course, is well-known for poking the wellness beast with humor, screenshots and eloquence on www.theysaidwhat.com. This article is different. Not as much fun perhaps, but “The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry” captures all my doubts and criticisms, and much more besides.

See also: The Value of Workplace Wellness 

Al often says that the wellness industry’s worst nightmare is being quoted verbatim. In this article, he has collected a mountain of self-incriminating verbatim quotes and claims, sourced with roughly 400 linked footnotes, all leading to the inexorable conclusion that, to be blunt, the wellness empire has no clothes. Al presents convincing evidence that what he calls “pry, poke and prod” programs really can actually harm employees. Further, the way wellness vendors typically calculate costs and benefits results in false ROI numbers.

This exposé, though generally dry and straight, is not without flashes of Al’s understated humor, albeit delivered in the context of the leading law-medicine journal. In one passage, Ron Goetzel is forced to spin the gaffe that his wellness advocacy group, HERO, accidentally published a chapter in their Outcomes Guide showing that wellness loses money. Ron is sourced as saying:

HERO’s board claims that, in creating the guide, they “fabricated” these numbers for the purpose of providing an example. Publicly, Goetzel, a member of HERO’s board, stated that “[t]hose numbers are wildly off . . . every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality.”

Al’s next paragraph:

The chapter’s author, however, disputes the HERO board’s and Goetzel’s claim that the numbers were fabricated. He argues that, quite the contrary, his data is real and several board members, including Goetzel, reviewed it prior to publication. Reconciling the example’s data with the HCUP database, which shows almost total consistency between the HERO sample and the population, provides further evidence for the author’s claim that the data is not “wildly off” but rather real, and a representative sample of the privately insured American workforce.

Al challenges the credibility of HERO’s board simply by quoting both a board member and the chapter author. After all, when your go-to defense is pretending to have fabricated your own numbers, you lose. And when Al Lewis is on the other end, you lose big.

This article, though not a quick read, is a necessary one for all policymakers, pundits and especially employers as they decide how to react both to the new findings by NBER and Willis – which turn out not to be new at all –and how to prepare for 2019.

See also: ‘Surviving Workplace Wellness’: an Excerpt  

Perhaps the best preparation is to do something completely different – as my book says, perhaps try doing wellness for employees instead of to them. “Pry, poke and prod” programs, especially the coercive ones, may finally meet the demise that I’ve been predicting for about 15 years now.

Published in the Case Western Reserve Health Matrix: Journal Law Medicine

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About the Author

Tom Emerick is president of Emerick Consulting and cofounder of EdisonHealth and Thera Advisors.  Emerick’s years with Wal-Mart Stores, Burger King, British Petroleum and American Fidelity Assurance have provided him with an excellent blend of experience and contacts.

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