Googling a Healthier Workplace

Programs to promote wellness and obesity reduction can be a tricky business for employers. Aided by a growing wellness industry, employers are gearing up to prod employees toward better health through financial incentives for things like weight loss and other health outcomes. But a new study in the Journal of Health Economics shows the limitations of such incentives. Employers that really want healthier employees would do well to study the systematic way Google has created a healthier workplace.

Google has invested in understanding health-related behaviors in the workplace and studying the effects of changes the company could make to promote healthier behaviors. Jennifer Kurkowski, a PhD in Google’s People Operations team, recently told the Washington Post:

With a company as big as Google, you have to start small to make a difference. We apply the same level of rigor, analysis and experimentation on people as we do the tech side.

It seems to be working for Google. Their data tells them that dietary habits at work are shifting in a decidedly positive direction. And Google ranks high on lists of the best places to work.

Contrast Google’s experience with the recent experiences of Penn State and CVS. Both organizations sparked sharp backlashes from employees when they threatened financial penalties for employees who did not submit to being weighed as part of a wellness program — another lesson in the difference between a welcome nudge and a rude shove.

Considering these experiences, the findings of John Cawley and Joshua Price in the Journal of Health Economics are unsurprising. They found in a controlled study of financial incentives for weight loss with 2,635 employees that the effects of incentives were modest and short-lived because of an extremely high attrition rate.

Thus it seems that two distinctly different approaches to employee wellness are emerging. Models driven purely by financial incentives will succeed only in shifting costs to employees. Employers that are serious about a healthy, engaged workforce will take a different approach, creating a culture of health and wellness where incentives are less essential. Google provides one of many successful examples.

Click here to read more about Google’s experience in the Washington Post and click here to read the study by Cawley and Price.

The Neo Monoliths of Chicago, photograph © Trey Ratcliff / flickr

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