Many companies are offering incentives to their employees for dropping pounds. The thought is that if employees shed “extra” weight, the company will save money on health insurance costs, doctor visits, hospitalizations, prescriptions, etc., since higher weights are correlated with health issues.
However, many of these health issues are not a direct consequence of a person’s weight. Weight is only one factor being taken into consideration. A person can be healthy at any weight, and plenty of people in larger bodies are healthy and active, eating with balance, variety, and moderation.
These health issues are more likely related to a person’s lifestyle, genetics, socioeconomic status, access to education and nutrition, etc. Weight loss is often prescribed as a method to improve one’s health, but can actually be detrimental.
Incentivizing weight loss in the workplace can be dangerous. It is unfair to some employees, and can perpetuate the very problem it is trying to prevent.
Here are just a few reasons why weight-loss programs in the work place are problematic:
1. There is no known intervention leading to the long-term achievement of “normal weight” for those who are “obese.” This means that a person must go to extreme measures to try to be at a weight that is not healthy or sustainable for their bodies, and a person will almost always regain the weight. If a person uses a method to lose weight that is not sustainable, they WILL weight cycle, which is harmful to a person’s health.
2. The obvious one: there are likely employees whose weight falls within the normal range, or who may even be underweight. For these employees, weight loss could be especially dangerous. These employees would not have the same access to the benefits awarded to others for losing weight.
3. Physical health is just one component of overall heath. The 6 components of health include physical, social, environmental, emotional, spiritual, and mental. A healthy lifestyle includes a balance of all 6 components. If an employer wants healthy employees, the other 5 components cannot be neglected. There needs to be a focus on developing all aspects of wellness, not just physical.
4. A work environment that encourages weight-loss is one that perpetuates diet culture and the stigmatization of larger bodies. At least 30 million people in the U.S. alone have eating disorders. This kind of environment is harmful to those who have eating disorders or are trying to recover from one.
5. Many clients that I see who have eating disorders name weight-loss programs at work as a catalyst for the development of their eating disorder. Some people may be able to lose weight in a healthy way. For others who are predisposed to developing an eating disorder, the pursuit of weight loss becomes obsessive and out of control.
Health and wellness go hand-in-hand. It is important for employees to understand and be aware of all aspects of health and how they are interconnected.
In order to promote a more wholistic approach to health in the workplace, all 6 components of health need to be in balance.
Here are some cost-effective ideas that could help ensure the health and well-being of employees:
1. Adequate staffing. If a person’s workload is too heavy, their stress levels are high. When a person is stressed, productivity, quality of work, and morale deteriorate.
2. Meet face-to-face with employees. Employees need to feel recognized, heard, and important.
3. Provide comprehensive health insurance benefits at no additional cost to the employee.
4. Keep board games, crossword puzzles, or a deck of cards in the break room. Children get recess when they are in school, and research has shown it can help kids focus in the classroom and improve their ability to retain information. Perhaps adults need some time for “play” in the middle of the work day. Having activities available for employees can encourage socialization, reduce stress, and prepare employees to tackle the rest of their to-do list with renewed energy.
5. Allow employees to work flexible hours or work from home when possible. This will allow them to make it to important appointments or events, prioritize physical activity or mental health, and spend quality time with family, while still completing the same job requirements.
6. Encourage employees to use their PTO. Along with this, provide adequate PTO to allow for illness and major life events, such as the death of a family member.
7. Provide a space for meditation, quiet alone time, or physical activity and allow employees short breaks to make use of this space.
8. Recognize employees who work overtime, compensate them fairly, and provide lunch or snacks for them.
9. Empower employees to say “no.” Healthy relationships have boundaries. Employees need to be able to say “no,” within reason, to extra projects, requests for them to work overtime, tasks that do not fall within their normal job requirements, etc.
A person cannot become “healthy” if only one aspect of health is being focused on. Also, losing weight does not always improve a person’s health. If companies want healthy employees, it is time to stop incentivizing weight-loss and start promoting health in all aspects.