Trouble in the Paradise of Workplace Wellness
Workplace wellness has been creating headlines this week, due to legislation about genetic testing in these programs. In a guest blog today, our friend Al Lewis writes about his concerns with the industry.
This week, Fortune published a generally very skeptical review of workplace wellness, highlighting one of the few major companies (Cummins) to be moving away from it. This article adds to the large and growing body of research and opinion concluding that most conventional wellness programs (risk assessments, screenings, and lectures) are ineffective and even harmful. I have written elsewhere about issues with the business practices of the wellness industry.
In particular, much of the wellness industry obsesses with employee weight. Compounding the futility of this obsession is the pervasive mistaken perception that obesity is simply a failure of willpower. This combined obsession/misperception manifests itself in many ways.
Subtle Weight Discrimination through Wellness Programs
First is the growing popularity of corporate crashing-dieting contests, such as this one at Schlumberger, the largest oilfield services company. They show no concern that people may binge before the first weigh-in and otherwise abuse their bodies before the last weigh-in, and likely regain the weight and then some.
Second are “outcomes-based” wellness programs, where employees can be fined or otherwise penalized for not losing weight. One vendor, Bravo Wellness, calls these fines “savings.”In reality all these programs do is transfer wealth from some (generally poorer) employees to others – and back to shareholders. And, of course, to the wellness vendors.
More Aggressive Weight Discrimination
As misguided as they are, those two ideas pale by comparison to the next two, which are much more aggressively discriminatory proposals.
Next is a so-called “fat tax,” proposed by some drug companies, IBM (which has an active workplace wellness promotion consulting practice), and, paradoxically, Pepsico. This proposal would have companies disclose how many overweight people they employ. The theory is that shareholders would be more likely to buy stock in companies with fewer people overweight. The beneficiaries would be wellness vendors and drugmakers. For the rest of us, it is a simple take-away, a tax with no offsetting benefit.
Finally, we have the most egregious example of all: a serious proposal to charge employees for health insurance by the pound. This proposal originated in the American Journal of Health Promotion. The AJHP is the bible of wellness vendors, largely because of ideas like this. This proposal also calls for pre-employment physicals to weed out unhealthy applicants for jobs that require “excessive standing or sitting.”
A Code for Ethical Conduct
So what can we do about this industry? We now have an Employee Health and Wellness Program Code of Conduct. It specifically states that penalizing or otherwise humiliating overweight employees is inconsistent with decency. If you have concerns, share that website with your company’s human resources department and insist that wellness programs comply with it.
And if you happen to work at a company whose wellness program is good – meaning they do wellness for employees instead of to them – tell us about it and tell them about us. We would like to make sure they get the credit they deserve.
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March 18, 2017