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Whole Foods Offers Employee Motive For Staying Fit

Corporate wellness programs are not a new trend, but they certainly are picking up speed as more employers recognize that prevention and interventions that reduce employees’ health risk factors may be the key to not only a healthier and more productive work force, but also lower costs. In fact, studies have shown that for every dollar spent on a corporate wellness program, a company can save as much as $6 in insurance costs. To convince employees to take a personal interest in their own health, America’s employers offer everything from vending machines with healthier foods, such as juices and granola bars instead of chips and soda, to reduced fitness club rates and walking trails. Some companies even forbid the hiring of smokers. But Whole Foods Markets has taken a different approach—offering additional employee discounts for those who meet certain health standards.

Currently, Whole Foods employees receive a 20 percent discount on store purchases, but under the new voluntary Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive Program, they would be eligible to receive up to a 10 percent increase on their discount by meeting requirements based on their body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, and nicotine use. Those who choose to participate would undergo free biometric screening and, based on their test scores, be assigned to one of four categories with corresponding discount rates: bronze (22 percent), silver (25 percent), gold (27 percent), and platinum (30 percent).

In order to qualify for the bronze level, an employee must be a non-smoker with blood pressure less than 140/90, cholesterol less than 195 and a BMI of less than 30, while the platinum level is for non-smokers with blood pressure of less than 110/70, cholesterol less than 140 and a BMI of less than 24. “Vitality and health is what a lot of people are looking for. (Employees) like the incentive aspect of it and the opportunity to get an extra discount out of it is helpful as well,” Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market, told “We have tiers because we’re trying to have it very achievable for people,” she said. “Every small step is huge and really makes an impact on one’s health.”

John Mackey, president of Whole Foods, said the company spent $150 million on health care for their team members last year and that the goals of the new program are to encourage and reward employees for making healthy, positive lifestyle changes and to reduce health care costs, noting that achieving the discounts will be “empowering and fun for employees who enjoy a challenge.”

Dr. Steve Berkowitz with St. David’s HealthCare says incentive programs like the one being offered by Whole Foods are precisely what some people need to encourage them to get healthy. “Obesity, smoking, cholesterol problems are some of the biggest problems we have in Texas right now,” he said. “So I applaud any effort that’s going to help motivate each individual person to make the changes.” Berkowitz worries, however, that the plan doesn’t provide much incentive for those who have medical conditions or other factors that make blood pressure and cholesterol levels difficult to control. “My only concern with a program like this is perhaps effort should be rewarded too,” he said, something Whole Foods management says they may consider for the future.

Dr. Michael Benedict, a physician in Richland, Washington who has studied the effectiveness of health incentives programs, noted that in order for this type of program to work, it requires education, recruitment and follow-up; steps Whole Foods says it is taking. “Along with this program, we have a tremendous amount of educational opportunities for our team members,” Wittenberg said, explaining that cooking classes and programs with doctors would be offered.

Some team members already have plans for the extra discount. Kathleen Seymour says she’s hoping to put hers toward her birthday present. “Everybody was really excited about it (the program), especially the younger people,” she said. “There’s a big bike scene here in Austin and all of the bikers were pretty gung-ho from the beginning.” Another Austin team member, Ann Fairfield, said “it’s really inspiring because you end up wanting to eat better and exercise.”

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