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The Last Word: Quinoa Grains, Wellness and Us

The workplace wellness trend is heading toward a patchwork of programs that miss the bigger point of a healthy culture.

September 12, 2013
Related Topics: Health Care Costs, Benefit Design and Communication, Corporate Culture, Health and Wellness, Health Care Benefits, Work and Life Balance, The Latest

You may have seen the recent story about the world’s oldest man. He lives 13,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of Bolivia, only speaks the region’s indigenous language and is “probably” 123 years old. “Probably,” caution the reports about Carmelo Flores Laura’s age, because the South American nation didn’t begin issuing birth certificates until 1940.

Though some skeptics are approaching this historic anomaly with a cocked eyebrow and grain of salt, I prefer to enjoy Sr. Flores’ tale with a hearty cheer and grain or two of his favored fiber. When questioned about his longevity, as inevitably happens during interviews with very old people, the supercentenarian humbly attributed his 12 decades on earth to daily routines of long walks and eating a lot of quinoa grain.

While I’m not ready to shout from the highest peak in the Andes that mountaintop strolls and trendy, megaprotein-packed grains found in gourmet stores are the links to a long and healthy life, there’s much to be said for such simplicity. The unintentional lesson delivered by the elderly peasant living near the shores of Lake Titicaca also may hold the key to the lost Incan treasure of workplace wellness: simplify overcomplicated corporate programs that often lose sight of the basics.

His story just adds to my current obsession with wellness. Besides attempting to run my first marathon and learning of a friend’s brush with serious illness, I’m also reading “Cracking Health Costs” by Tom Emerick and Al Lewis, who challenge many established practices in employers’ desperate chase to cut spending.

The authors expound on the virtues of culture, which coincidentally correlates with the simplicity of Sr. Flores’ mountainous lifestyle. Diet, exercise and a committed, supportive workplace culture may sound unsophisticated alongside multitiered wellness incentives, biometric surveys and predictive modeling charts. But ask yourself: In the long term, what will nurture a healthier, more productive workforce? I’m no benefits manager — I just play one from time to time in print — but give me long walks in thin mountain air and noshing on quinoa any day.

Don’t get me wrong; the corporate attention to wellness is a wonderful thing. Happy and healthy trumps dour and dumpy every time when it comes to productivity. And companies are right to combat rising health care costs.

But the workplace wellness trend is heading toward a patchwork of programs that miss the bigger point of a healthy culture. Besides his diet and walking a lot, I’d bet Sr. Flores also has lots of family and friends surrounding him. It’s not a new concept by any means, but a supportive workplace culture offers a similar social connection.

As the authors note, organizations dole out millions in cash and gift incentives every year to curb unhealthy habits. I like getting $100 for filling out a health questionnaire as much as the next guy, but I may be inclined to fib on several questions since my health issues are between me and my doctor, not me and my company.

And think back for a moment: Does promising your sixth-grader five bucks for every A on their report card result in straight A’s? Maybe you’ll be all smiles that first semester when Junior finally pulls down A’s in classes other than PE. But what about next semester? And seventh and eighth grade? And then high school, with courses like calculus and English lit and … gulp … machine shop?

The truth is that financial incentives — and carrots generally — have limited power to curb entrenched habits. As Emerick and Lewis argue, paying employees to quit smoking or cut back on the 64-ounce sodas at the food court aren’t likely to bring lasting change.

My neighbor never seemed prone to poor health habits, so I was surprised when I heard about his hospital stay. Fortunately, the tests came back negative but doctor’s orders for the future were quite clear: Exercise and change your diet for the better. While I’m guessing that my neighbor has no intention to live like a Bolivian mountain man, it appears that he’s taken the message to heart … no pun intended.

I’m also four months into training for my first marathon, which no doubt has raised my level of preachiness regarding workplace wellness to insufferable heights. And I never imagined that I’d become so preoccupied with the depth of tread on my running shoes.

I also didn’t expect to find myself so fixated with the book. Yet I keep returning to one point in their argument: “Employers should reallocate wellness dollars from get-well-quick vendor schemes into a much more challenging — but ultimately more rewarding — task of creating a culture of wellness, a workplace that can attract and retain healthy people.”

Perhaps the evolution of workplace wellness starts not with a blood test or incentive-laden wellness plan, but instead with a friendly hello over a bowl of quinoa grain followed by a midday walk. It can’t get much simpler than that.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.


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