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Why Is Weight Loss Still Part of Workplace Wellness?

'Wellness' programs are more popular than ever. They're ineffective at best, harmful at worst.

by Gretchen Brown
February 26, 2020 | Work

At the hospital where Christina works as a physical therapist, she and her coworkers are routinely shuffled into a big conference room and measured for waist size and BMI, blood pressure and blood sugar.

If their measurements aren’t “low enough” — according to the company’s parameters — they pay extra each month. If they pass two of the three categories, they pay less.

“When I did it this year, I fasted before so my blood sugar wouldn’t be high,” said Christina, who asked that we change her name.

“I was so nervous about some random dude measuring my waist and telling me I’m too fat.”

At the media company where Molly works, there’s an eight-week annual “wellness program,” centered around either exercise or weight loss.

While it’s technically optional, completing the program saves her $800 annually on insurance— a significant amount of money to her that doesn’t feel optional. Molly’s name has also been changed for this story.

It’s been 12 years since “The Office” depicted a workplace-wide weight loss program, but the programs are more popular than ever.

In 2020, they’re titled “wellness programs,” though the focus is often still on weight. About 90 percent of large workplaces have them.

There’s a reason for that. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act incentivized such programs, allowing employers to raise premiums as much as 30 percent for folks who don’t reach certain benchmarks.

These programs are often well-intentioned. But there’s evidence that they’re not all that effective.

A 2016 study found that incentive-based wellness programs lead to virtually no change in weight.

Other studies have found no significant improvements in self-reported measures of health like sleep quality, other clinical measures of health, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, or workplace outcomes, like job performance.

[ICYMI: Fake Food Science is Everywhere. These Influencers are Trying to Stop it.]

'Wellness' comes with risk

And while they’re often hailed as cost-saving measures, most companies don’t even save any money on healthcare outcomes.

Instead, studies show workplace wellness programs lead to increased weight stigma and discrimination in the office, leaving folks feeling alienated and uncomfortable, and even less likely to believe their weight is in their control.

Weight stigma is real. Fat people are more likely to be seen as lazy and unprofessional. Surveys of recruiters indicate fat job applicants are seen as less hireable than thin candidates.

A woman looks in a mirror. REWIRE PBS Work Weight Loss Workplace Wellness
Approximately 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate.

Weight stigma can also lead to poorer medical care for fat folks and subsequently worse health outcomes.

This focus on weight in the office can also be dangerous for folks who are at risk of or personally affected by eating disorders.

“We know that dieting and restricting is a major risk factor for the development of disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.

“So when there’s a focus on weight loss specifically, that’s already a risk.”

Disordered eating is widespread and deadly. One survey from SELF found that 65 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have disordered eating behaviors.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate.

Only 40 percent of folks with eating disorders fully recover.

Taking weight out of the picture

Initially, many workplace wellness programs showed up as “Biggest Loser”-style competitions, modeled after the popular NBC TV show, pitting employees against each other to see who could lose more weight.

But today, in an era where body positivity has gone mainstream, the messaging is more subtle, packaged under ‘wellness,’ a buzzword of sorts. Instead of obsessing over thinness, these programs often obsess over “fitness” — with weight loss still as an indicator of success.

“We’re at a place and time where there are so many mixed messages about what it means to be healthy,” Mysko said.

‘Wellness’ as an industry, at its core, still equates thinness with health, and weight loss as always good. Mysko said that’s dangerous for folks who are predisposed to eating disorders.

For instance, Weight Watchers, the popular diet company that rebranded as WW last year, calls itself a “campaign for wellness” on the front page of its website. Meanwhile, it’s still a diet company, with weight loss as primary goal for its customers.

Mysko said health initiatives aren’t inherently bad. Exercise is healthy. But instead of running programs that focus on weight, she recommends that companies take a more holistic approach.

That means no competitions or weigh-ins, and no focus on weight loss or weight management.

“When we talk about health, we’re also talking about mental health,” she said.

“Taking the emphasis away from weight and BMI, and helping people to adopt habits that are supporting all aspects of their health.”

Eating disorders don’t exist in a vacuum — they’re tied to other mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.

But even as weight loss is a common conversation topic, mental health in the workplace still feels taboo.

Ignoring mental health also comes with a cost — between $80 and $100 billion annually, according to Forbes. And it’s incredibly common, with one in five adults experiencing mental illness each year.

NEDA recommends talking to your HR department if you’re concerned about your workplace wellness program.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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