Didn’t Get a Raise in 2012? Maybe You Can Eat a Few More Apples Instead

Steve Boese Benefits, Compensation/Cash Money, Steve Boese, wellness

Last week, in the quiet time between Christmas and New Year’s where most of the working world slowed to a crawl, only to be occasionally stirred to life by the odd extended holiday lunch or from the benevolence of a manager or two that dismissed the troops early on the Friday before the holiday weekend, you might have missed reports of a recent patent awarded to a team of researchers at IBM.  The patent, fairly innocuously described as a means to “Providing consumers with incentives for healthy eating habits”, has some interesting implications for workplaces, privacy, and the role and responsibility of the organization and the employee when considering employee health, habits, and the cost of employer-subsidized health care. While the basic idea or theory behind the patent filing, that eating more healthy foods in the long run results in healthier employees and lower health care costs is not all that novel, some of the details of how this system actually plans to achieve these outcomes are worth a closer examination.
So what makes this particular patent interesting? Take a look first at what the new IBM system entails, taken from the Abstract of the patent filing: “A method, system, and program for providing consumer healthy habits incentives are provided. A consumable item, consumed by an individual, is detected. A health factor is detected for the consumable item. An electronic incentive is selected for the individual according to the health factor, such that the individual is encouraged to consume a healthy selection of consumable items. An electronic incentive may be further specified according to the individual health history, exercise history and consumption history of an individual.” While that Abstract is a little obtuse, perhaps if we break it down into its components, we can make better sense of the proposed system, and the implications for organizations and employees.

1. “A method, system, and program for providing consumer healthy habits incentives are provided.”

Well that sounds fine. I mean, who can argue with the benefits of that? We need incentives to eat better, exercise, take a nap sometimes, (well maybe not that). So, how will the system work?

2. “A consumable item, consumed by an individual, is detected. A health factor is detected for the consumable item.”

So by consumable item, I take it you mean a hot dog, latte, apple, fried stick of butter at the fair – is that the idea? And by ‘detected’ I take it to mean something a little more advanced than lying, I mean self-reporting what I eat on the ‘wellness’ portal. But it sounds like by also detecting a ‘health factor’, it won’t be so easy to keep arguing that beer is really a health drink.

3. “An electronic incentive is selected for the individual according to the health factor, such that the individual is encouraged to consume a healthy selection of consumable items.”

An incentive? Awesome, I love me some incentives. So eat the ‘right’ things and I can score some incentives? Let’s hope the incentives come in the form of cash. Or pizza. If you dig deeper into the patent filing, you’ll see the system included methods to integrate the healthy consumables purchases with the organization’s payroll system, thus making possible the ‘Have an apple, earn a quarter’ HR promotions possible.

4. “An electronic incentive may be further specified according to the individual health history, exercise history and consumption history of an individual.”

I like this even better. As someone that perhaps occasionally makes the wrong food choices, (ahem), I bet I would score even better incentives for picking the ‘consumable items’ with greater ‘health factors’. This is cool.

There is a ton more detail about the ‘incentives for healthy eating’ system in the patent text, and while the actual application of such a complex system that could track the food purchases of employees, assign health factors to these foods, assess them in the context of the employee’s medical and dietary history, and finally define, assign, and issue incentive payments through the company payroll system based on the employee food choices seems a little far-fetched, (or at least distant); there is little doubt that technological advances coupled with corporate mandates to rein in health care costs could make a system like this attractive to employers.

The real question is not whether employer-sponsored systems like these are coming, it’s whether they will be smart enough to scour the employee’s Facebook, Yelp, and Foursquare feeds to check for all their unauthorized and unreported food and drink updates.

Keep that in mind all you Mayors of Krispy Kreme out there…