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Whole Foods wants a healthy workforce; so what?
January 28, 2010, 9:24 am
Filed under: Shop, Think | Tags: , , ,

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently sent out a letter to employees outlining a voluntary program whereby Whole Foods employees who don’t smoke, have low blood pressure and cholesterol, and maintain a BMI under 30 (a BMI above 30 is considered obese) would be eligible for discounts above and beyond the 20% already afforded to employees on groceries purchased at Whole Foods.

Of course, smokers eager to protect their lifestyle, folks genetically predisposed to high cholesterol or obesity, and those who can’t control their blood pressure are up in arms. They argue that the program is discriminatory. As for the public? The average Jane on the street is offended by what she deems an attack on fat people, a group to which she fears she belongs. The bleeding heart liberals in favor of universal health care are already riled up as it is after Mackey’s libertarian op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Smokers are probably pissed, but they already know smoking is bad for their health, and they’re also too cool to complain.

Why demonize Whole Foods for offering steeper discounts to employees who make an effort to be healthy? Let’s review the facts:

  1. All employees are still entitled to a 20% discount on their groceries. No one is taking that discount away from them, so it’s really remaining status quo.
  2. Employees who choose to enroll in the incentive program submit to biometric health screenings and can become eligible for steeper discounts based on their health: “platinum” level employees get 30% discounts; “gold” level employees get 27% off, silver level employees get 25%, and “bronze” level employees get 22% off. Those employees who choose not to enroll or do not meet the requirements even for the “bronze” level – they still get 20% off.
  3. It does not mean Whole Foods is going to stop hiring smokers, fat people, or those with clogged arteries.

This is an incentive program; if it works, then employees will try to make better choices in their lives (what they eat, how often they exercise, to quit smoking) that will allow them to move up from one health level to the next, saving money on groceries and, hopefully, also on health care. This doesn’t take money out of anyone’s pocket. It gives employees a reason to think twice about their decisions.

Yes, if you are a Whole Foods employee who is naturally thin, naturally healthy, and you don’t have to do a goshdarn thing to be that way, you skate into that “platinum” health level. But not all thin, healthy people are born that way (and if they are, chances are they’ve skated through more things in life than a Whole Foods health level). There are thin, healthy people who make conscious decisions to watch what they eat, to exercise regularly, and to avoid cigarettes. I mean, I love me some fried chicken and I’d like to eat it at every meal but I also know that’s probably bad for me so I don’t, and that doesn’t make me happy. I hate running but I do it so my heart doesn’t feel like it’s going to burst out of my chest every time I climb a flight of stairs. I used to like having a cigarette with coffee while sitting outside a front-facing cafe in the summertime, but I quit smoking because it’s what’s good for my health. For my sacrifice, I wouldn’t mind getting an extra 10% off of my groceries.

As the Financial Times points out, Whole Foods is not the first company to try and cut its health care costs by providing incentives for its employees to be healthy.

But Whole Foods’ effort is also part of a broader trend among businesses concerned by rising health costs. Companies including Kellogg, Humana, Johnson & Johnson and Dell have all linked discounts on insurance payments to a range of health indicators in an effort to create incentives for healthy behaviour.

Safeway, the US supermarket chain that has taken a lead on the issue, offers members of its non-union healthcare plan discounts of $780 if they meet standards in the same four areas set out by Whole Foods. The retailer has also tested using its supermarket loyalty card sales data to offer health premium discounts to employees who purchase more healthy foods. Critics argue that the approach is potentially discriminatory.

I’m not saying that Whole Foods’ health indicators are perfect; it’s unlikely that these metric indicators will be spot-on all the time. Other indicators that might be useful are those that gauge an employee’s effort to become healthier: maybe proof of having a gym memberships or engaging in health-boosting hobbies or activities (yoga, recreational soccer, boxing, etc.).

So, this is how I feel about the issue. See what the commentors at Eater and Jezebel are saying.


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