Management & Leadership

Health Care: Human Resources Targets Your Family


The health nags in human resources have exhausted every possible idea to goad you into good health. At several large corporations, they've realized it's no use turning employees into vegan hardbodies if their dependents—also on the company health insurance plan—are gorging on trans fats and becoming regulars at doctors' offices.

That's why the next front in the Wellness Wars is not about you. It's about your husband, your wife, and your kids. While most big companies already have employee wellness programs, the newest trend is expanding those efforts to include dependents, says LuAnn Heinen, director of the National Business Group on Health, a Washington-based health-care think tank. If you can get your family on its corporate wellness program, Aetna (AET) will give you a $1,200 reward. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) offers health coaches to family members in its plan. This month IBM (IBM) started sending out cartoon-adorned plates to teach kids about portion control. At Dell (DELL), spouses get discounts on medical premiums.

INCENTIVE BACKLASH

In Washington, legislators have been working to give companies more power to tie healthy behavior to financial rewards. The Senate's health-care bill would increase the amount companies can dole out as health incentives to as much as 50% of the total premium from the current 20%. Not everyone supports the proposal. The American Heart Assn. is mounting a full-scale offensive, saying the rewards could make health care less affordable for the very people who need it the most.

Obviously, this battle is about more than slimming down and lowering blood pressure. Many policy experts believe that workplace wellness programs have great cost-cutting potential. A recent meta-analysis of existing studies by two Harvard professors published in the February issue of the journal Health Affairs found that for every dollar companies spend on employee wellness, medical costs fall an average of $3.27. Such savings are a big reason President Barack Obama met last spring with executives from companies such as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Microsoft (MSFT), which both say their initiatives save them millions annually.

In 2008, IBM became one of the first companies to roll out a children's health rebate. Doris Gonzalez, a senior manager in IBM's corporate citizenship department, says she was calorie counting during the workday, but when she returned home to her three-year-old, Milena, the 51-year old single mother felt wiped out. The dinner time tableau featured mother and daughter zoning out in front of the TV and ordering pizza, pasta, or fried chicken from the Dominican joint down the street. "Milena maybe watched a little bit more TV than she should have," she says.

Now Gonzalez limits takeout to twice a week and restricts TV to weekends. Mother and daughter cook dinner together from the weekly menus IBM drops into Gonzalez' in-box. Gonzalez has lost 10 pounds, Milena snacks on fruit and pita instead of gummi bears and chips, and each receives a $150 annual rebate. IBM says nearly two-thirds of the kids participating in the program have lost weight.

Jennifer Lechman, an Aetna benefits consultant, told her husband and three kids they would get a cut of the $1,200 incentive if they joined her company's program. Now the kids try to out-fruit one another. After dinner the family takes walks or jumps on the trampoline. "This outsources the management of it to them," says Lechman. "I don't have to nag."

Conlin is the editor of the Working Life Dept. at BusinessWeek.

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