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The Story of an Employee Who Benefited from Wellness

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

It has, of course, been proven that corporate wellness has not accomplished anything, as measured by the consensus endpoint — one of the few things HERO and I agree on — of admissions for wellness-sensitive medical events.

Along with the lack of benefit, conventional wellness has a downside: occasionally we post stories of employees complaining about how bad their wellness program is — three complaining specifically about the Cleveland Clinic’s program just last week.  Plus, Optum and others have admitted to deliberately flouting clinical guidelines, which is no way to improve employee well-being.

Yet it wouldn’t be fair to say employee wellness has benefited no one. An employee has stepped forward to say how much he benefited from none other than the much-maligned Penn State wellness program.  That employee would be the none other than the employee who led the wellness revolt, Professor Matthew Woessner, this week elected Chair of the Penn State Senate.

Usually this would be big news at least locally, but Bernie Sanders held a rally on campus the same day, and so the Senate election news got fawcetted. (To be “fawcetted” is to have your news event bumped off the front page by a bigger news event, as when Farrah Fawcett died hours before Michael Jackson. I invented the word, and it’s really gone viral. Not.)

Though Matthew was already a member of the Penn State Senate at the time of the wellness revolt, he taught at and represented the Harrisburg campus. This was not exactly a high-visibility posting   Most people — likely including some at Penn State itself and certainly including me — hadn’t even known there was a Harrisburg campus. So needless to say he didn’t exactly command a bully pulpit.

But when the University’s wellness program was announced–stealthily, in the summer of 2013, timed so that no one would be paying attention–Matthew and a few colleagues sua sponte sprung into action.  Allied against the combined forces of the university administration, Highmark and Ron Goetzel (and with a soupcon of help from moi-meme), Matthew was able to get Penn State to rescind what would have been one of the worst programs in wellness history.  Clearly his Senate colleagues–and the Penn State faculty as a whole–were quite appreciative, as this near-debacle remains fresh in their minds more than two years later.

The proposed Penn State program also flouted clinical guidelines, but that was just the beginning.  For reasons that shall remain one of life’s little mysteries, like whether there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll or how they get the stripes into toothpaste, it laser-focused rather lasciviously on employees’ privates — prostate exams and testicle checks, plus a plethora of questions involving ladyparts. For instance, refusing to disclose pregnancy plans could cost a female employee $1200.

Ultimately, it was that last question that rallied the employee base.  In a videotaped session, the Highmark representative said the reason for this fine was so Highmark could “help” employees who were planning on becoming pregnant. Jon Robison often refers to programs as “Wellness or else.” This was: “Let us help you or else.” As an analogy, imagine a Boy Scout threatening to mug a little old lady if she didn’t let him help her cross the street.

Ironically, if Highmark and Mr. Goetzel had given this pregnancy issue any thought, it would have occurred to them that by definition women who are planning pregnancies don’t need the “help.” It’s women who find themselves pregnant by accident who would benefit. So this question would have led to Highmark “helping” exactly the wrong women, while ignoring exactly the right women.  Even in wellness, a 100% failure rate is a little on the high side.

Matthew’s contribution cannot be understated. Ohio State was going through the same issue at the same time.  Their faculty and staff also hated their impending “pry, poke and prod” wellness program, but without a natural leader like Matthew, they were forced to cave.  Who says you can’t have controlled experiments in wellness?

I know it’s not always about me, but Matthew also attended the “Great Debate” in November.  (I will be finally be posting the tape of that soon. This being the wellness industry, with one shock-and-awe event after another, my debate posting keeps getting fawcetted.)   Under withering criticism from Matthew and myself, Ron ran away from his Penn State program as fast as possible, until we pointed out he was in the room for the press conference on Penn State’s “taking the offensive in the wellness controversy,” unless that was a different Ron Z. Goetzel.

Penn State’s Culture of Health

You want culture of health?  At the same time this program was being announced, the campus bakery announced an expanded selected of pastries and desserts for the upcoming academic year.  Plus, the faculty, staff, and spousal access to fitness facilities was surprisingly constrained, given that the facilities were already in place.  For less than the cost of the wellness program, the administration could easily have waived fees and other access restrictions.

The Future of Penn State’s Wellness Program

Academia being a highly deliberative and process-oriented field, there are a lot of steps between being elected and actually taking office.  Matthew will be chair-elect for a year first. So it might take 12-24 months to effect any changes in this arena, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someday the university’s program is so good that I end up writing a major article highlighting exactly the opposite about Penn State vs. what I’ve posted in the past.

That is, assuming yet another wellness vendor debacle doesn’t fawcett it.




  1. Sam Lippe says:

    Hilarious. Very few people could weave testicles, the Kennedy assassination and toothpaste into the same narrative.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      thank you. Helps to start with such great material. No industry on earth matches wellness for sheer hilarity.


  2. […] just got elected president of the Penn State Faculty Senate — largely because employees were so grateful to him for his leadership in that […]


  3. […] just got elected president of the Penn State Faculty Senate — largely because employees were so grateful to him for his leadership in that […]


  4. […] program just got elected president of the Penn State Faculty Senate–largely because employees were so grateful to him for his leadership in that […]


  5. […] program just got elected president of the Penn State Faculty Senate–largely because employees were so grateful to him for his leadership in that […]


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