THE BLOG
12/11/2015 09:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

End 'Fat-Shaming' Employee Wellness Programs

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If a colleague makes repeated references to your weight and threatens to take away your lunch money if you don't lose weight, that's bullying.

But if your employer does exactly the same thing, that's corporate wellness. And when your employer takes away your lunch money, it can be for a whole year's worth of lunch: fines or lost incentives for failing to lose weight often reach four figures.

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Further, there are now hybrid programs where employees are broken up into "teams" to see which team can lose the most weight. This "gamifies" weight loss and uses social media to institutionalize fat-shaming. That's all well and good if you feel like depriving yourself of food for 8 weeks (the typical length of these programs). But imagine if you're the one on your team who simply can't take the weight off, perhaps because you are older and/or naturally endomorphic. Or imagine if you feel so shamed that you resort to drastic weight-loss measures. The Office covered this very topic. It wouldn't be funny if it weren't true.

One wellness vendor even acknowledges the shame of fat-shaming. Wellness Corporate Solutions (WCS) says: "Respect and appreciate size diversity. Recognize that size prejudice hurts us all." Ironically, that vendor itself offers team competitions beginning with "a company-wide weigh-in at launch" and ending with "final weigh-in eight weeks later to record changes."

Different rhetoric, same tactic -- as an employee, you are fat-shamed. But in wellness, that's OK because colleagues are allowed or even tacitly encouraged to fat-shame you if you are on their "team." As opposed to fat-shaming as part of bullying, fat-shaming as part of wellness counts as a "business necessity" by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means employers are entitled to do as much fat-shaming as they want to. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that the whole idea of corporate wellness is to encourage obese and older employees (who have the most trouble losing weight) to quit. There is no "smoking gun" to support their theory, but it's hard to find any other rationale for corporations to obsess with employee weight, given the negative impact of wellness on corporate healthcare spending and morale.

Unfortunately for the employees who are victimized by the workplace wellness fad, there is no upside for them. As with any diet or exercise program, a few people will do very well, while the vast majority won't. And by simply encouraging exercise or healthy eating -- subsidizing gym memberships or Weight Watchers -- your employer would accomplish the same objective painlessly. (In the wellness field, this is called "wellness done for employees" instead of the more typical "wellness done to employees.")

With no upside for employees, the only "business necessity" is to defeat the purpose of the Affordable Care Act by using wellness programs to slash your health benefits -- simply by giving you an unappealing way to "earn them back" with weight-loss and other programs. One company, Bravo Wellness, once candidly admitted right on their website that companies could generate "immediate savings" by fining employees for not participating or succeeding. Punishing fat, infirm, or older employees appears to be an unintended consequence of the Affordable Care Act.

And that's what it's all about: punishment, fines, and companies saving money at your expense. There is no "business necessity" for actually improving your health. Quite the opposite. These programs, like WCS's or ShapeUp's, tend to run 8 weeks. This encourages unhealthy crash dieting. And if rewards/penalties are high enough, people will binge before the initial weigh-in. That's two unhealthy behaviors your employer is encouraging -- just so they can save money on health benefits since most employees either refuse to participate or drop out.

The "good" news is that it's not just overweight people whose health is jeopardized by wellness programs. Many programs force employees to do many questionable things -- from drinking too much water to being forced to take absurd tests in the name of wellness. A doctor telling patients to do these things would lose his license... and yet wellness vendors, totally unregulated, can force employees to do whatever they can "sell" to your HR department. Here is a list of the 10 most dangerous wellness companies. See if your employer's vendor is on it.

And one other little tidbit: leaving aside the windfalls that employers gather from non-participants, dropouts, and failures, these programs don't save them money. It's been shown both that employee weight loss doesn't generate lower healthcare spending or higher productivity, and that most of the time employees gain the weight back anyway. Further and more basically, recent research shows that weight isn't even the right measure to focus on: distribution of body fat is a far more important measure than actual weight, but few employers focus on that. Likewise, it's quite possible that some extra weight is beneficial among older employees.

If you are one of the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese, what should you do? If the fine is high enough that you feel economically compelled to participate, you can sue your employer, at least for the time being, under the ADA, because the program isn't voluntary. This won't be true much longer, as new rules are soon going to redefine virtually every wellness program as "voluntary" even if the penalties or lost incentives are $4,000 or more for a family plan.

It's also possible that your own human resources (HR) department itself has been snookered by wellness vendors or consultants. We maintain a website documenting a long list of dishonest wellness vendors and practices. Yours may be included. Your HR folks themselves may be looking for a way out, and this list could help them get there.

Finally, your company is required to offer you an alternative to fat-shaming wellness programs. (Disclosure: my company is in the business of wellness alternatives.) Example: you may be able to get a note from your doctor saying that you are developing your own program, or claim some other reason why you should be exempted.

One way or the other, the good news is that our experience is complaining loudly and often can spare you from the humiliation of your company "playing doctor" on you with workplace wellness at your expense. Is this a great country or what?