Surveillance at Work

Workplace Wellness That Promotes Stigma, Not Health

Workplace wellness sounds like such a benign concept – maybe even beneficent. So why does it sometimes spark such anger from employees? And why aren’t workplace wellness programs working to yield better health? A recent paper from Frontiers in Psychology offers important insights. Senior author Stuart Flint sums it up:

Problems arise when these programs place all responsibility on the individual. We’re told simplistic messages about obesity – that it’s easy to change, and people should take more responsibility. But that’s simply not the case. Those of us who have read the evidence will see obesity is extremely complex.

The more we assign blame to individuals, the more likely we are to go on and stigmatize people.

And in turn, promoting stigma leads to worse health outcomes, defeating the supposed intent of a wellness program.

Promoting Stigma Through Blame

Flint and his colleagues found that wellness programs could be stigmatizing through a series of three studies. In the first, they demonstrated that wellness programs persuade employees that body weight may be more under their control than it actually is.

Next they showed that health promotion emphasizing individual responsibility promotes weight-based discrimination in promotion decisions. If your weight is your choice, why promote people who choose an unhealthy weight? Or so the implicit thinking goes.

Finally, they found that an emphasis on personal responsibility had unexpected consequences for individuals. While they came to believe that these outcomes were their responsibility, that emphasis left them feeling that their weight was less controllable.

In sum, wellness programs that promote personal responsibility for health serve to promote weight stigma and discrimination. And other research has shown that more stigma leads to worse health.

Fueling Vocal Critics

So it’s little wonder that workplace wellness has attracted such vocal critics. Al Lewis writes about the implications of this study, saying:

Sustained weight loss as a result of wellness programs stigmatizing obesity has never happened in the past, and there is no possibility – none, zero – that workplaces trying to coax, cajole, bribe, fine, or shame employees into losing weight will ever be successful in the future.

No wonder virtually every single wellness program fails.

Taking it a step further, Shoshana Zuboff and Katie Fitzpatrick warn about the rise of surveillance capitalism. Fitzpatrick points to the example of West Virginia teachers who struck and won against an invasive and punitive wellness program the state tried to impose on them. She writes:

The teachers in West Virginia knew that Go365 threatened their dignity and their livelihood. They used the power of their union to fight back and win.

This is wellness?

Click here for the paper from Frontiers in Psychology. For further perspective, click here.

Surveillance at Work, illustration © Jared Rodriguez for Truthout / flickr

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May 6, 2019

4 Responses to “Workplace Wellness That Promotes Stigma, Not Health”

  1. May 06, 2019 at 9:33 am, Martha Shea Smith said:

    The complexity of obesity is undeniable therefore the solutions are complex as well. I believe that multi-disciplinary research needs to be funded. I hereby volunteer as a subject!

  2. May 07, 2019 at 11:49 am, Angela said:

    It’s not accurate to lump all corporate wellness programs into one group to state “no wonder virtually every single wellness program fails”. If your goal is to make people lose weight and you are measuring success by that- then you fail. This is a narrow view of wellness program success and failure. There are so many more effective ways to measure program success. I run a wellness program that supports the whole person and promotes healthy habits and lifestyles- not weight. Weight is just one measure of health and not the only one nor the most important. There are too many unhealthy ways to lose weight that feed into the cycle of disordered eating that have nothing to do with good wellbeing.

    • May 07, 2019 at 12:03 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for your comment, Angela. I agree that focusing on health, not weight, is best – especially for a workplace wellness program. And in fact, stepping back to wellbeing is even better.

  3. May 07, 2019 at 12:17 pm, Al Lewis said:

    A very thoughtful comment and I totally agree. There are two types of wellness: wellness done FOR employees and forced wellness done TO employees. You are describing the former while I was describing the latter.