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pitney bowes knows wellness: free-ranging interview with dr. brent pawlecki

December 15, 2010

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators)

pitney bowes is well regarded as an innovator in employee health, thanks in no small part to their former CEO mike critelli’s vision and dedication. i spoke with dr. j. brent pawlecki, corporate medical director at pitney bowes, to find out what they’ve learned through the years.

fm: pitney bowes started thinking about their employees’ health well before most companies. why was that?

bp: mike critelli, the former CEO of pitney bowes, had been the VP HR for the company. he understood the importance of keeping healthy.

fm: where did you begin?

bp: we looked at our health data and the high cost drivers that were affecting our productivity. then we started with low-level programs at headquarters: flu shot programs, well-being programs. things that helped begin health education.

at that time, people believed information would help change behavior; a lot of people still believe that. we’ve evolved our thinking. information is no longer sufficient. one of the issues that’s missing is the emotional triggers. for example, if i have a broken arm, i can’t pick up my three-year-old. or, when you think about someone’s relationship with food, we typically only hear calories in, calories out. that’s true, but everyone has a relationship with food. when i was eight, i tried on a pair of pants i’d received, and they were too small. my family threatened to put me in “husky” pants. i decided right then i’d never be fat, and that has shaped every piece of food i’ve ever eaten.

fm: my relationship with food comes from a different place, but i know exactly what you mean. our histories drive our present-day behaviors and attitudes.

bp: we developed an internal blog about one year ago. on it we share both health information and personal stories, and we bring in guest bloggers. my second guest blogger was a victim of domestic violence. you don’t always know people’s personal histories. i’m totally amazed that people are able to get through their day.

fm: that’s so true. we keep a lot hidden—more so at work than anywhere else, partly out of necessity, right? how do you handle this especially complicated marriage of health, work and influencing employees’ behaviors?

bp: it really helps that we’re a trusted brand. there’s a trust here that goes way back to prior CEOs’ actions. for example, pre-racial integration, one of our former CEOs refused to stay at a hotel because a colleague couldn’t.

we also maintain a very strong privacy rating in our clinics and in our business. if i run into an employee in the hall, i’ll never bring up their medical issues. now, people will stop me in the cafeteria to ask a question. they don’t always think of what it means to maintain their privacy. if that happens, i’ll pull them into a more private setting to discuss their health issue.

fm: what forms the core of your program today?

bp: there are things that should be the core of any program, focusing on: 0% tobacco use, daily flossing, 25 BMI, 5 fruits and veggies and 30 minutes of exercise per day, and 100% seatbelt and helmet use.

we frequently have built-up silos around health: mental health, disability, health and welfare. we try to break down these silos. if someone comes in with a cold, we’ll find out their kid’s been diagnosed with a condition. we talk about that condition and how it’s affecting them, and then we direct them to the appropriate resources, helping them navigate the often-confusing medical system. we’ve added end-of-life planning. we talk about domestic violence and substance abuse so employees know there are resources out there for them. wellness programs should be hitting on these. it’s not just weight and fitness.

fm: do you use incentives or penalties at all?

bp: initially our incentives were directing people to complete a health assessment. to have employees understand key health information, we incented people to complete health education modules, like “knowing your biometric numbers,” “how to use the health system” or “understanding various health conditions.” we’re now incenting people to participate in specific health programs through their health plans. whenever possible, we believe that the “carrot” approach is the appropriate way to motivate individuals.

fm: i know that you’ve also considered how design influences behavior.

bp: in our cafeteria, the healthy options are the visible, cheaper choices. our default side is carrots, not chips. steelcase produces something called a walkstation. we purchased them for our call center folks. we also have them at other locations, and anyone can use them. i can plug in my computer and work. when we redesigned our world headquarters, we removed individual printers. people have to get up. they have to interact. and, by the way, it also saves on paper. we also built our stairwells right in the center of things. they’re very airy, and they go right into our central area where there are things like the ATM. i think that people mostly want to do the right thing, but they forget. whenever possible, we build our default to be the better choice.

fm: how else are you reaching your employees?

bp: one-half of our population doesn’t have computer access. they’re the folks who aren’t using health care well, either. every day our non-wired employees have a huddle calendar, and we insert health messaging in these. we put together project: living, which consists of a newsletter, personal stories and home mailers. our next step is to use a computer platform that’ll be accessible to families, providing them the health information that our employees have had access to through our programs. we want to include family members, who are 44% of our health care costs.

fm: one thing i’m very keen on is getting more employers to agitate the system, something that pitney bowes seems to be doing.

bp: we believe that by improving our community, we’ll make things better for everyone and for our future employees. we participate at many different levels, programs and coalitions. i’m active at national and global levels for benchmarking what’s working. our CEO was at the white house to talk about health care reform. we met with the health commissioner, the CDC. we sit on boards: domestic violence, public health organizations and large regional players. there’s a lot of activity to improve health and health care beyond our walls.

fm: since you’ve been at this a long time, you’ve obviously been able to track results against your baseline. can you tell us what’s been effective and what kind of results you’re getting?

bp: a lot of people ask us what is our ROI on an individual program. we believe there’s a better response, as each of the programs is a tool that contributes to our ultimate ROI: the health of our employees and our overall health care costs, which for us have been trending at roughly two-thirds the cost of our benchmark companies.

fm: recent surveys show employers becoming much more focused on tying incentives to individual results, like a lowered BMI, not just participation. what’s your point of view on this?

bp: currently, our approach is to encourage participation. one’s never completely finished in building a culture of health. this is a lifelong marathon that can be encouraged and supported by an understanding, supportive and progressive workplace.

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read more free-ranging interviews with wellness innovators.

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