Real ‘Worksite Wellness’ Is it an HRA? Is it a Cholesterol Screen? No, it’s a Decent Working Wage and a Free College Education

Some of us believe worksite wellness has lost its direction, lost its purpose, become something done to employees rather than for them. In fact, thanks largely to the Safeway Amendment in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), worksite wellness is rapidly becoming wellness or else with more than 60% of companies saying they will punish their employees for not participating in the near future.

But, there is hope! On June 12, Dallas-based Parkland Health, one of the nation’s largest “safety-net” health systems, announced implementation of a unique “wellness program” for entry-level workers.

As of July 1, the minimum wage for these workers will be raised from $8.78 an hour (already above the national minimum of $7.25) to $10.25 an hour. The plan will affect 230 employees and cost the system about $350,000 the first year.

When asked about the rationale behind Parkland’s initiative, executive vice president and chief talent officer Dr. Jim Dunn (by the way… not human resource manager but talent officer; while people and coal are both resources, only one of them has talent) said the minimum wage decision was part of Parkland’s new leadership team’s desire to improve employee morale and provide a better living wage to frontline staff. In his own words,

“We really want, in any way possible, to break down any gaps or anything between the top leaders and those who are closest to our patients…We feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

But there is more. Amazingly, as people say in the sports world (and in conjunction with the Spurs recent overwhelming defeat of Miami to take the National Basketball Association title) today, on June 16, 2014 Starbucks elevated the “taking care of your employees” thing to a whole new level.

Chairman and chief executive Howard D. Schultz announced the company will provide a free online college education to thousands of its workers, without requiring they remain with the company. Think you heard that incorrectly? You did not. Baristas with at least two years of college credit will pay no tuition to finish their bachelor’s degree. For those with fewer credits, Starbucks will pay part of the cost, but even for many of them, through a special arrangement with Arizona State University, courses will be free, with government and university aid.

Starbucks is, in effect, inviting its workers, from the day they join the company, to study whatever they like, and then leave whenever they like — knowing that many of them, degrees in hand, will leave for better-paying jobs. And with an average cost of $500 per credit hour and about 120 credit hours needed for a bachelor’s degree — well, you can do the math — we are talking about substantial amounts of money. But Schultz, like increasing numbers of enlightened business leaders, can see the big picture and knows that, even if some employees do leave for greener pastures, their experience

“…would be accreted to our brand, our reputation, and our business. I believe it will lower attrition, it’ll increase performance, it’ll attract and retain better people.”

And how do employees feel about this bold gesture? Michael Bojorquez Echevarria, 23, a Starbucks barista grew up in the Bay Area, the child of immigrants from Mexico. He is working about 60 hours a week at two Starbucks locations toward an associate’s degree in sociology to fulfill a lifelong vision:

 “My ultimate vision, what I’m striving for, is to work with children who have gone through physical or emotional abuse… Imagine just waking up one day and knowing that your whole degree would be paid for, and the only thing you have to do is enroll and study and be a good student… It would change my lifestyle, the whole dynamic of what I do every day.”

On The Other Hand…

Just to be clear about how truly innovative (if you’ll pardon the 60s lingo — mind-blowing) these programs are, let’s quickly compare them to one of the most well-publicized employee wellness programs of the past year, one created and proposed by some leaders in the field, and one that incorporates all of the latest trends in the ACA wellness provisions.

Yes, last summer, Penn State University, guided by its health plan (Highmark Blue Cross) rolled out its own version of “let’s take care of our employees.” Without consulting anyone who would be affected (including the health-policy experts who work at the University) university leaders announced employees who refused “to be taken care of” (by not participating in the initiative) would be charged $100 a month. To get the feeling for the real disaster that this supposed wellness program was, let’s get it directly from Dr. Brian Curran, the Penn State professor who started the revolt that eventually got the program terminated. In his own words:

“Penn’s State’s new Health Care policies, which have been rolled out quietly in the middle of the summer, include an excessively invasive ‘Take Care of Your Health’ plan that forces employees, by imposing a massive, $1,200 a year surcharge, to submit to poorly and unprofessionally mass-organized blood tests and ‘biometric screenings.’ Included in this mandate is an additional mandate, requiring all employees and their spouses/SSDPs, to fill out an incredibly invasive ‘Wellness Profile’ that, if taken, immediately shares ALL of the person’s private medical information with WebMD, a third-party agency with a far from comforting record in the area of privacy… Each and every one of these policies raises serious questions related to patient privacy and medical ethics. But perhaps most importantly, their punitive character raises fundamental concerns regarding the relationship between Penn State as an employer and its employees…. In light of these concerns, not to mention the almost complete lack of appropriate consultation with representative bodies across the university, we ask, indeed, we demand, that implementation be IMMEDIATELY stopped, or at the very least delayed, so that further consultation with the employees and their representatives can begin.”

And how did those targeted by this wellness initiative feel? Here are the words of one employee who was seven months pregnant when the program was rolled out:

“Here are the screenings I had to submit to in order to avoid the $100/month fee in 2014:

Height Measurement
Weight Measurement
Waist circumference
Cholesterol test
Blood pressure
Glucose test

The first four are meaningless — according to my OB, even the cholesterol isn’t an accurate measurement for pregnant women and shouldn’t be taken until six weeks postpartum. Oh, excuse me… I guess my height was accurate and meaningful… you should really have your height checked regularly. Blood pressure and glucose are being checked regularly by my OB. What a waste of time and money. I’m already spending a lot of time out of the office for doctor appointments.”

So, what is the take-home message? See if you can discover it by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Which of these programs are likely to improve employee wellbeing?
  2. Which of these programs are likely to improve employee engagement?
  3. Which of these programs are likely to improve organizational wellbeing?
  4. Which of these programs are likely to positively impact the bottom line (long-term)?

Slam-dunk – don’t you think?


Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: or

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