7 Hidden Consequences of Weight-Based Wellness Programs

There was a time when workplace wellness programs were synonymous with employee weight loss initiatives. Thankfully, this era is coming to an end. We are beginning to understand true health is far more than one set of metrics. Therapists are stepping up to warn us that an almost exclusive focus on weight can contribute to eating and body image disorders.

As a sociologist who researched weight stigma for my master’s project, I offer below seven dangers inherent in workplace wellness programs that revolve around the scale too much.

1)  Dieting makes our bodies more efficient at storing fat. Almost any kind of reducing diet will work in the short term. But  most dieters regain their weight back in a few years. In a meta analysis of 31 studies, UCLA researchers found that up to two thirds of dieters eventually gained more than they lost. One reason may be because dieting slows metabolism, as evidenced by this study on Biggest Loser contestants. Their bodies burned fewer calories six years after their initial weight loss was recorded.

2)  Yo-yo dieting  is bad for our health. It can increase the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other maladies.

3)  Dieting may lower employee efficiency. I know the industry touts studies that claim weight loss increases productivity. But there is also evidence to the contrary.  It isn’t just Garfield who gets grouchy on diets. Anyone who has been on one knows they can cause irritability and fatigue.

Some psychologists believe that will power is a limited resource that can be exhausted. In one classic study, subjects who had to resist chocolate chip cookies gave up on  frustrating puzzles sooner than those who did not.  As with every other academic theory in existence, willpower depletion has its critics.

Yet, what dieters are doing is taking on thousands of years of evolution. How can this battle not take a physical and psychological toll that leaves its combatants drained?

4) Group weight loss campaigns contribute to eating disorders. When calorie counting is part of company culture,  people will naturally refrain from eating certain foods in public. However, no one can be an epicurean saint forever. Some people will start to eat in secret, usually in far greater quantities than they would if moderation in the light of day were encouraged.  Rachel Goodman is one of the growing number of nutritionists to make the connection between dieting and binging.

Even Corporate Wellness Magazine acknowledges that the wrong type of  program can be triggering for those with eating disorders.

5) Penalties cause resentment and division among employees. There is a tendency to selectively scapegoat certain groups, those whose BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol fall out of the current range of acceptability. Some plans even require them to pay more for their health insurance. This  is usually spun as discounts for “healthier” workers.

These practices are inherently unfair as we all engage in behavior that increases our risk for medical expenditures in one way or another.  If a chronic speeder gets in an auto accident, should they have to pay their discount back?

6) They encourage some employees to cheat. Beyond the case of the public employee who defrauded Kansas City out of $300,000 by falsely making claims about his exercise and diet participation, there is a whole slew of workers tipping the scales in their favor. Weight loss contests beg for people to do everything from loading  their pockets with coins to over consuming salty food for their initial weigh ins. The Wall Street Journal has documented many creative ways to outsmart your workplace wellness program.

7) They further erode the self-esteem of those with body image issues.  Too often, there is the false assumption that employees are unaware they are at risk and simply need education about healthier choices.

Nothing can be further from the truth.  Women, especially, who have been influenced by decades of unrealistic media standards, are hyper aware of their weight. Many have an encyclopedic knowledge of the multiple conflicting theories of weight control.

Studies have documented that young girls are more afraid of fat then  they are of cancer, losing a parent, or nuclear war.  I remember one of the most powerful women in the world, Oprah Winfrey, once revealed  that her scale determined her mood for the day.

Given that weight can eclipse every other aspect of a woman’s (and an increasing number of men’s) identity, measuring it through the workplace can rob an employee of their confidence. No matter how well they perform on their official duties, they may still feel like a failure if they can not hit some arbitrary target.  This, in term, may affect their job satisfaction and may even decrease their ability to perform well.

Nothing in this post is intended to imply that we need to give up on either workplace wellness programs or healthy lifestyles.  Next week, we will look at ways to promote physical and emotional health in ways that are positive and nurturing rather than punitive and exclusionary.

Further Information

Listen to this short TED talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt as she explain how our brains work to undermine permanent weight loss: Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work.

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Nya Jackson

I like the idea of workplace wellness programs but like you’ve outlined there can be negative results if they’re not designed properly. The wellness program at my office rewards people for healthy behaviors by reimbursing a portion of your gym membership if you go 12 times a month, partnering with grocery stores to provide discounts on healthy foods, and offering rewards for hitting certain markers like walking a certain amount per day, etc.

It promotes physical health in a positive way although there’s still room for abuse but it’s probably impossible to root that out entirely from any program.