What Bartleby Says

It’s a fine day for the people who care about this sort of stuff when the topic of corporate wellness makes the year’s first edition of The Economist. New resolutions for a new year surely had something to do with the timing. The Bartleby column is out with The spy who hired me. More heat and bleach is needed on wellness (or it’s more sophisticated twin or sibling, wellbeing) and the people who sell it. What also makes this a fine subject, is for all but the sellers of these programs, it can unite both the Bernies and the Donalds. It’s about privacy, waste, and intentions that don’t quite work out.

On corporate wellness and its tendency to stretch the laws of arithmetic and its pursuit of risk reduction and productivity: “A study by RAND Europe, a research institute, found that obvious bad habits such as smoking and high alcohol use were in fact not associated with lower productivity, while obese workers were no more likely to take time off than anyone else.” So trying to force people to be healthy doesn’t work. “A better impact on morale (and thus productivity) might occur if workers felt that their managers had a genuine interest in their welfare.”

The incentives alone are high. According to the 2018 Kaiser Employer Healthcare survey, companies routinely (I’m taking averages here for the 35% of firms that offer them from the underlying data so stick with me) offer wellness carrots, or sticks, or frozen carrots of $800+ to do such fun things as fill out questionnaires known as health risk assessments or get your blood drawn (often more frequently than recommended by experts). None of which have any history that I’m aware of showing savings, or increases in happiness, or mindfulness, or reduction in après-yoga stiffness. Perhaps the biggest loss, and something I advocate for: that’s money that could go to lower deductibles, to a health savings account to pay for the choppy future of healthcare costs, or to a similar basket of stuff that employees want (e.g., running shoes).

To end on a high note, and to blemish a little what you think about Henry Ford, he “had a ‘sociology department’ that would make unscheduled calls on workers to monitor their lifestyles; those who failed to make the grade were paid lower wages.” We’ve improved since then. But we still have a lot of waste and shenanigans. The wellness vendors now will almost always say, yeah, but just give it more time. We’re different. Here’s a curated case study to prove it.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash


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