Trouble in Paradise

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.

Trouble in Paradise, photograph © Taro Taylor / flickr

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March 18, 2017

One Response to “Trouble in the Paradise of Workplace Wellness”

  1. March 18, 2017 at 10:08 am, David Brown said:

    The reason wellness programs are ineffective, if not outright harmful, is because companies use the federal government’s dietary advice.

    The name of the game is weight loss without discomfort. As long as saturated fat remains on the list of nutrients of concern, dietary advice that can help people lose weight without experiencing appetite issues is off the table.

    Note that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does not consider saturated fat a health hazard.

    “In comments recently submitted to USDA and HHS, the Academy supports the DGAC in its decision to drop dietary cholesterol from the nutrients of concern list and recommends it deemphasize saturated fat from nutrients of concern, given the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease.”

    Typically, anti-saturated fat enthusiasts believe that “The attempted exoneration of saturated fat is wrong, misguided, and harmful to public health- because it leads to all the wrong food choices. Shifting diets to more meat (often processed, and even more often derived from animals fed badly), butter, and cheese will not advance any public health goals.”