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December 12, 2014

To Hellness With Wellness

Summary:

Current wellness plans are absurd, but lessons from disease management (and human nature) point to a narrower approach -- and success.

Photo Courtesy of Ben Raynal

It seems the only people made “well” from corporate wellness programs are those who collect $6 billion in annual costs. Still, all is not lost. If we use the most basic workings of human nature as a guide we can salvage a more reasonable realm for the notion of employer-sponsored “wellness.”

Corporate wellness is seriously flawed on the grand scale it once proclaimed. Here are four reasons why, in my opinion:

First: Wellness costs too much and thereby sets a high threshold for return on investment (ROI), which begs failure by any score based on savings. Let’s say you have a 500-person workforce. After a couple of years of “wellness,” 10 smokers legitimately quit for life, and five obese employees legitimately get to normal BMI and sustain it. For these individuals, the wellness program is an amazing success with great implications for future health. Unfortunately, with the average cost per employee in corporate wellness programs at more than $500 per year, two years costs more than $500,000, and a calculation of ROI depicts an abysmal failure.

Second: The profit motive of wellness purveyors supersedes common sense. Their sweeping approach provides incentives for assessments to identify candidates at risk and assumes that simple potential indicators of unhealthy lifestyle or other conditions create a savings opportunity. This is absolutely false. One fact is missing. Of the persons targeted, only a precious few are at a personal decision point and have the will to actually attempt difficult lifestyle changes.

Targeting must take human nature into account. We can properly diminish the presumed footprint of wellness if we look back and study individuals with actual historic success. Let us understand what indicators of personal human attitude that handful of successes gives us to use as a second-step screen. How much easier is it to realize ROI when only spending $500 per head on a smaller number of likely candidates?

Third: There is an absurd, blind thirst in both the private and public sectors to find believable reductions in projected future healthcare costs. The hype of wellness is perfectly suited to quench this thirst. Unfortunately, the absurdity is legitimized by governmental acceptance of the fool’s gold of claimed lower healthcare costs to gain leverage in negotiating state-worker union contracts, rigging budgets and passing federal legislation. (Can you spell ACA?) The term “fool’s gold” has the word “fool” in it for a reason.

Fourth: The wellness industry ignores lessons that should be learned from success in its sub-area of  disease management — specifically, that human nature feels no call to action until mortality comes knocking. Disease management savings can be documented in examples like the PepsiCo program called Healthy Living, initiated in 2003 and providing real savings today. Why does disease management work? In my opinion: People with a disease feel their mortality and are inclined to follow any program that might help.

Disease management supports a population with more personal incentive and will. Conversely, the debunked lifestyle approach targets an abundance of people who are personally happy while smoking or overeating. Fewer are suffering the acute implications of their lifestyle. “Wellness” money spent on them is useless.

Quick Tip: Trade “Big Wellness” for disease management with limited lifestyle programs

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many people who need and will accept disease management. As far as lifestyle, there are but a few people ready to commit to change. The good news is that over time, and organically with no cost, these few might spark an interest by others in any employer population. Keep the doors open for them and keep awareness high. In the meantime, don’t waste real money or use gimmicks on them.

I suggest wellness vendors create a new approach that unlocks the psychology of raw lifestyle change, targets the few and is willing to take on smaller footprints. Accept less money but stay for the longer haul.

You owe it to the tarnished notion of “wellness” to fix what you broke.

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About the Author

Barry Thompson is a 35-year-plus industry veteran. He founded Risk Acuity in 2002 as an independent consultancy focused on workers’ compensation. His expert perspective transcends status quo to build highly effective employer-centered programs.

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