By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week, the Whole Foods Markets grocery chain announced a plan that would allow staff members to receive a greater discount on health insurance if they maintained low blood pressure, cholesterol, and Body Mass Index (BMI) readings.

The discounts are substantial. Sarah Gilbert at Daily Finance explains:

“Those who want to take part can undergo biometric screening, which will determine what discount level they’ll receive: Bronze, silver, gold or platinum. The maximum discount is 30%, and to qualify, employees must have a BMI of less than 24, cholesterol levels below 150 mg/dL and blood pressure of 110/70.”

Participation in the program also offers a further discount on groceries (on top of the 20% discount team members already receive).

The company is claiming the new measures are a way to save money on company healthcare costs. In a January 2010 letter to staff, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote,

“Whole Foods Market spent more than $150 million in 2009 on health care for our Team Members, and that amount is projected to rise each year. One of our goals is to control our healthcare costs the best we can – this benefits Whole Foods market, and also benefits our Team Members through lower year-over-year insurance premium increases and a health plan that is sustainable for the long term.

He continued, “It is very important to understand that these new Health Discount incentives are not a new “benefit” for our Team Members like our current discount cards are… We believe this is a win-win program that will help both our Team Members and our shareholders.”

Criticism – Where do Corporate Boundaries Lie?

We’ve discussed corporate fitness programs on Evolved Employer as a great way to encourage employee engagement and lower healthcare costs. But at what point are corporate programs like these overstepping professional and personal bounds?

In his letter, Mackey stresses that the program is strictly voluntary, and no employment decisions would be made based on scores. Yet, letting your employer in on the intimate details of your body metrics may make some people uneasy.

Also, the program offers incentives for people who already have healthier scores – whose healthcare costs would (by Mackey’ logic) be lower in the first place. What does the program do to encourage employees to improve their scores? It may, in fact, offer a disincentive to participate for those whose scores do not qualify in the first place.

The company has responded to such criticism by explaining that participation is completely voluntary – and that employees are showing excitement about the incentives. And by offering tiered plans, they say, a wider range of participation is possible.

Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market, explained, “[Employees] like the incentive aspect of it and the opportunity to get an extra discount out of it is helpful as well.” She continued, “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.”

Debating Body Image in the Workplace

In an interesting piece, Carly Smolak of Triple Pundit explains that negative effect such a campaign could have on body image – and that these type of targeted goals may be unrealistic for everyone.

She writes:

“There are some things that certain bodies will never do: some people will never run distance well, some people will never sprint well, some people will never gain weight beyond a certain point, and some will never lose it. The most important thing is for each of us to find out what our body’s optimal balance is, and at a certain point accept and love whatever that is.”

It’s a well known fact that individual body types differ, and people must set reasonable goals for their own fitness levels. Not every individual will be able to reach the top tier of this incentive program – does that create an unfair disadvantage for those who can’t?

Smolak writes, “While there are plenty of effective ways to encourage employees to live a healthier lifestyle and find their own balance, creating a regime of shame based on a narrow and inaccurate definition of health– such as BMI– arguably creates a hostile work environment.”

Whole Foods’ program is interesting and groundbreaking – and new ideas are often controversial.

Perhaps the company could respond to criticism by offering healthcare discounts to individuals who show a marked improvement in certain body metrics over time – rewarding fitness progress, rather than incentivizing only the participation of individuals who already fit into its narrow definition of what a healthy body looks like.