Kicking the Habit at Comcast

stop smokingGenerally speaking, we all know how so-called coercive wellness programs work. The essential idea is to reward employees—or impose consequences on them, depending on how you look at it—for adopting certain healthier behaviors.

A common example is what’s sometimes known as the “smoker’s surcharge.” Companies hit tobacco-using employees with a higher insurance premium, ostensibly encouraging them to stop smoking, be healthier and more productive, and cut down on healthcare costs.

Such programs may be well-intentioned, but aren’t always embraced by the workforce.

Comcast Corp., however, seems to have found a way to get its nearly 120,000 employees on board with its efforts to stub out cigarettes.

At GlobalFit’s 7th Annual Innovations in Wellness Summit, held yesterday in Philadelphia—just blocks from the cable giant’s headquarters—Lauren Gemberling, wellness coordinator with Comcast, shared some details on how they’re doing it.

In July of this year, the company begins charging a $25 per-paycheck premium to employees who smoke. This past November, Comcast employees were asked to indicate whether they used tobacco, and if so, whether they planned to enroll in the company’s smoking cessation program by July.

Planning to enroll and actually doing it are two different things, of course. But to date, 8,430 Comcast employees have done just that, and the overall results have been extremely positive, says Gemberling.

She showed the audience some examples of Comcast employees saying so themselves, through video testimonials the company has collected since November.

For example, one employee recalled his reservations upon learning of the company’s implementation of the premium, questioning his employer’s role in his personal health decisions.

In the four months since, however, he says he’s joined the program, quit smoking, gotten a gym membership, lost weight and bought a new car—which may have been made easier with the $600 he estimates he’s saved per month since giving up cigarettes.

Such examples aside, any organization introducing such a program is bound to see resistance from some workers who feel their employers are crossing a boundary, not to mention unfairly taking money out of their pockets.

Gemberling, however, says they’ve gotten largely “great feedback” from the workforce at Comcast. A key, she told the audience, is not to spring such changes on the workforce. Give employees plenty of time to process the premium change and consider their options, she said, and assure them the program’s overarching goal is to offer an incentive—and assistance—that helps them kick a dangerous and difficult-to-break habit.

“This is the first time I’ve rolled out a program where employees have said, ‘Thank you. I’ve been trying to change this behavior on my own for years, without success. I’m thankful for the help.’”