Message to Corporate America: Hire and Advance the Wellest of the Well

What better time than now for companies to create and promote policies that, other things being the same, favor those who practice quality of life-enhancing lifestyles when hiring and promoting? U.S. organizations large and small continue to face rising medical costs (i.e., 6 to 8 percent health insurance rate increases); in addition, employees with high risk lifestyles are a well-documented drag on performance and productivity. How many organizations can afford to ignore these realities? On average, there are 4.6 unemployed people competing for each job opening, according to government statistics. American companies on average pay $1,503 more annually for health coverage for “high risk” workers.

Given economic conditions, the present is an opportune time to institute policies that REAL wellness educational opportunities and incentives to enhance the opportunities for more employees and those seeking jobs to practice healthy lifestyles. There are in this country no fewer than 13.9 million Americans looking for work – those who refuse to help their organizations by looking after themselves to a greater degree are not irreplaceable.

In a recent Tax Policy Symposium on “Health Care Reform and U.S. Business—A Diagnosis,” the urgency of gaining control of costs associated with negative employee health habits was made clear. Tony Holmes, a partner and senior consultant at Mercer Health & Benefits LLC, a global provider of employer-sponsored health and benefits services, said: “One of the biggest reasons our costs are significantly higher is because during the last 10 to 15 years, people have become less healthy.” http://knowledge.emory.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1339

There is something else companies could do, and should do to turn this trend and unfortunate consequences around. They can work with non-profit organizations in their communities to offer REAL wellness learning opportunities for the unemployed. This would be a major community service that, on occasions, would also identify persons who have skills needed by sponsoring organization. However, the main beneficiary would be the unemployed. They would learn valuable life skills from this organizational outreach. All companies with wellness programs could make some contributions along these lines. They could sponsor a few learning sessions on wellness skill areas for citizens seeking work. The latter would not only have opportunities to learn valuable personal mental and physical lessons but could gain insights into the kind of core cultural wellness goals that Judd Allen described in an interview posted at the SeekWellness Center. These include learning to secure support from family, friends and the community for such benefits as healthy fun, reaching full potential, expressing mutual respect and supporting self-care. Among many methods, these teaching tools by company outreach might include wellness self-assessments related to economic, social, emotion/spiritual and physical wellness. Surely all of this would improve job-seeker employment prospects as much as learning appropriate skills needed by companies. All businesses want to employing workers who will not be a cost burden to their benefit plans.

Basically, it might be time to incorporate into the meaning of “fit for work” such a consideration as “fit to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle.

The high cost of illness is convincing documented by studies of corporate wellness programs. Healthy employees are increasingly seen as essential to profitability. Employees who smoke, abuse alcohol, fail to exercise sufficiently and so on are a financial burden. On the other hand, employees who practice healthy lifestyles are assets, saving companies substantial sums. These funds can be put to more profitable uses than paying exorbitant medical insurance premiums and other costs (absenteeism, low energy) related to illnesses that could, in many cases, have been avoided by more conscious lifestyle choices.

What position do you suppose Republican Tea Baggers might take toward this idea? How about the Democrats? Would such active support for and favor toward REAL wellness lifestyle habits in hiring, promotion and extra-curricular education be viewed favorably or not by varied pressure groups? Would such such selection criteria in hiring and promotion be considered by the Right as part of a socialist, big government, over-regulated liberal agenda? Or, just the opposite, would the Left see the initiative as a reactionary Right Wing, fascist extremist policy triumph? Might some see it as a case wherein the richest bigwigs of mega-corporations are muscling little people around to increase their grotesque profit margins?

I have no idea but the political consequences seem irrelevant. All who care about employees and promoting opportunities for all to share in fair chances for good and healthy lives should put forward their best ideas, regardless of such considerations. Let the elected officials support or oppose such plans – and face the consequences of the public for doing the right or other thing. The wellness promoters and company leaders must care most about putting forward what seems in the interests of both business and social well-being.

It’s unfortunate that extreme interpretations are the norm in the present era of political positioning by one side or the other on so many matters. One side usually views change proposals put forward by the other side as a malevolent power grab and/or abuse of the rich or the poor – and/or the beleaguered middle classes.

Personally, I think that if you want to be hired by a company that values the well-being of its people, you should be able to demonstrate that you are committed to a healthy lifestyle.

Over a decade ago, an enterprising human resources recruiter working for a large university ran an ad consistent with this idea of hiring and advancing healthy, wellness-oriented people. The ad read: “Earned doctorate in Public Health or Health Promotion, evidence of scholarly productivity and a wellness lifestyle that reflects the philosophy of the program.”

Who would question that? A call for wellness-oriented candidates for a wellness-oriented job. Would you expect a sedentary smoker with an attitude to be a good candidate for this position? Of course not.

Several health professionals wrote to me at the time, asking if I had any objection to ads like this. I replied that the question they asked reminded me of a parable about an American who visited Spain during the Franco regime (described in a Wall Street Journal editorial on 6/30/98, p. A18). The Yank wanted to know what Spaniards thought about the dictator, so he asked a man in Madrid and was promptly taken in three different cars to an isolated lake and then in a rowboat to the middle of the lake, where the Spaniard looked around to make sure no one was watching and whispered in the American’s ear, “I like him.”

I liked the ad! For all I know, it may have planted the idea for this proposal. Since I don’t live in a totalitarian country or work for a politically-correct university, I can say what I think without the need to insist on going out to the middle of a lake to do so.

The ad was not draconian in any way. It did not suggest that the University would NOT hire someone who was not perfect in attitudes and lifestyle behaviors. The University seemed to be suggesting that it valued employee well-being, and would like candidates who shared that interest.

Of course, I want a program to go much farther. I want to see employers INSIST UPON such a qualification! I would also like to see more information in ads about the nature of wellness at the workplace. More on what the employer has in mind concerning the nature of a candidate’s lifestyle! What a splendid public service such job requirements would represent if they were combined with detailed descriptions of various aspects of REAL wellness. Such ads might even represent wellness educational campaigns.

What might happen if more employers identified a wellness lifestyle as a desired quality for successful job candidates – and hired accordingly? Here are a few possibilities:

  • A flurry of lawsuits from labor unions and others that, if successful, would constrain innovation, creativity, constructive change and a bold initiative for a healthier workforce.
  • More interest in discovering what in blazes a REAL wellness lifestyle is all about.
  • Increased efforts by job candidates to look into if not to dabble in such lifestyles, if only to improve their chances for jobs that require it. Remember, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still an advance.
  • More serious commitments and ambitious initiatives to test whether or not this wellness lifestyle idea is worth the trouble it takes to pursue.
  • Higher participation in varied wellness lifestyle programs.
  • More people struggling to maintain and improve upon the quality of their lifestyles — and succeeding.
  • Better health, less illness, more life satisfaction and greater success in realizing goals.

Maybe corporate leaders at wellness-oriented worksites will support this kind of initiative. Everyone should realize that a wellness commitment does not mean complete abstinence from all bad habits, or the absence of physical or other disabilities, or anything that would rule out or disadvantage those with lifestyle qualities beyond his or her control.

If I were the CEO of a company, I would send out an ad for candidates similar to the one noted above. However, I would expand upon the University ad cited, suggest that a sense of humor is also expected of candidates.

This kind of wellness marketing could be accomplished by substituting the usual phrase about “an affirmative action employer” (read, “white males will be excluded, other factors being more or less equal”) in favor of the delicious send up that mocks all discrimination. The best example I can think of was seen in the movie “Life Is Beautiful,” namely, “No spiders or Visigoths allowed.”

Besides a sense of humor, I would want to add sex to the ad. After all, sex sells – it appeals to everyone, including the holier-than-thou types who claim or act as if they’re against it or that it’s a sin unless done in ways that have ecclesiastical approval, which varies by religions. (Jehovah Witness sex is not the same as Amish sex, and the latter varies from sex approved by the Taliban – and so on.)

In any event, ads for REAL wellness-oriented employees should, as with the lifestyle itself, be compelling, attractive, intriguing and engaging. For starters.

What’s your opinion of my idea for hiring and advancing the wellest of the well?