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Calling in sick… of workplace wellness programs

October 9, 2013

Weight LossFat HealthExerciseEating DisordersDickweedDiet Talk

Trigger Warning: Discussion of workplace weight-loss competitions, dieting, weight loss and eating disorders.

We’ve all seen it on blogs, Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Insanity also means madness, and these two definitions are exactly the best way to describe workplace wellness programs.

Treadmill workstation

A health insurance company’s wet dream

We’ve talked about them before. This March and April, CVS and Michelin created new rules for employees regarding their health insurance wherein those who didn’t meet the requirements for their version of healthy (not fat, not smoking, no high blood pressure or cholesterol) would have to pay more for their coverage. CVS’s extra cost was $600, Michelin’s was a whopping $1,000.

Over at Dances With Fat, Ragen Chastain posted about Penn State’s attempt to force its employees and their covered spouses and partners to get their BMI, waist circumference, lipid and glucose checked at mobile clinics, and take an online health survey. If they refused, they faced a $1,200 fine. Fortunately, the new wellness program, supposed to start in November, was abandoned by Penn State thanks to backlash.

And in this post, Carrie Arnold of EDBites explains how workplace Biggest Loser competitions can be triggering for those suffering and/or recovering from eating disorders, a factor that is ignored all together when these things are put into place.

Why are so many companies and organizations getting involved in regulating their employees’ weight, whether through restrictive insurance mandates, weight-loss competitions, or work-sponsored Weight Watchers (which had to be dropped at a former workplace of mine because there weren’t enough people interested to sign up)?  Well, for one thing, it seems a lot of them have bought into the fear about fat people costing them money and supposedly being less productive employees because they use up too much sick time compared to their thinner co-workers. Perhaps they were spurred on by the CDC’s infamous LEAN Works site. Add in insurance companies’ obsession with weight, as opposed to overall health, and it’s not hard to see why they’re panicking.

But the panic is really all for naught. This study, which Carrie also linked to, shows that the results of many of these programs simply aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  A weight loss of one to three pounds to me doesn’t justify penalizing workers with metabolic issues, which affect many thin people as well.

If  employers  want employees to be productive and healthy, then don’t threaten them with higher insurance premiums. Don’t bombard them with Biggest Office Loser signups. Don’t post fat-shaming pictures and quotes. Focus on their job, not their waistline or their metabolic numbers.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2013 11:25 am

    I’m still waiting for somebody to propose shortening the length of the average workweek while still paying wages comparable to those made by current full-time workers. Seems like the obvious way to decrease stress and exhaustion (which are detrimental to us all, regardless of body size) is to let us have a bit more leisure time.

    But… no. Big Employer must keep us on that short leash all the time. We can’t be trusted to behave responsibly out of its sight. [rolleyes]

    • October 20, 2013 2:19 pm

      Our workload has at minimum doubled since the floods damaged the facility where I work. Many people were laid off, and those that remain are expected to pick up the slack. Plus we now have this scheduler in my department who has turned herself into some sort of tin god. She threatened two of my co-workers, one of whom is one of the best workers I’ve ever met, that if they call in more than three times, she will take them off the schedule and write them up.
      I officially hate my job at this point. I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any way I can retire early.

      • October 20, 2013 3:01 pm


        Do it if you can. The trend of piling more work on existing employees while slashing actual worker numbers is likely to continue into eternity. It’s great for “the job creators,” after all. (Hell on nobodies like us, but who cares?)

        I’ve come back and reread this piece a couple of time since it was first posted, and each and every time the idea behind a literal job treadmill makes me feel queasier and more put off. I’m already weary of the iron control that employers have over employees. Not to mention the constant assertion from most mainstream tastemakers and politicians that endless wage work is somehow the highest aspiration that any red-blooded American can ever hope to have. (Of course, I’ve been barely-employed myself for about six years. So… yeah. I’m a tad bitter, and I don’t care who knows it.)

  2. October 9, 2013 11:46 am

    I agree that weight-focused workplace wellness programs are ineffective at best and usually harmful in their encouragement of fat hatred, dieting and weight cycling. But please, let’s separate this issue from the use of treadmill desks .

    I’m walking on a treadmill set up with a desk and laptop computer in my home office as I write this. When I first heard of workplace treadmill desks I was horrified, and envisioned supervisors cracking whips at fat employees forced to walk at them. Then I read a NY Times article last December about research showing how unhealthy sedentary jobs can be (duh) and that the effects are not reversed by exercising outside of the job (surprise!). I bought a treadmill and TrekDesk and starting using it for some of the time I worked in my home office, gradually increasing the time. It’s really helped my back problems, as well as preparation for and recovery from hernia surgery this summer.

    I wish the “day job” I work at 3 days a week, sitting at a computer in a cubicle, offered treadmill desks as an option to work at some of the time — completely divorced from weight and external incentives (or coercion), of course. Would I want to walk 1-2 mph at a treadmill desk all day? Nope. But doing it some of the time has really helped me, and I wish I had clued in on that earlier. And for now, when at the day job I make a point to stand up every 20 minutes and stretch.

    • BBDee permalink
      October 9, 2013 6:55 pm

      Interesting! As one who “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” I wonder how I’d do with trying to walk and work at the same time!

      • October 11, 2013 1:04 pm

        I wondered the same thing before trying my treadmlll-desk setup! The recommendation is to walk no more than 1-2 mph at such a setup, because the point is simply to be moving/not sedentary rather than aiming for aerobic exercise. I started out at 1 mph and then eventually moved up to 2 mph, which does give me a little bit of a workout (if sweating is any indication 🙂 but is probably the maximum I would want to try while typing. And I don’t think I’d want to do a lot of Deep Thinking type writing while walking on the treadmill…I’d be concerned about pausing for reflection and flying off the treadmill!

        Standing desks, or setups where one can work while standing, are also recommended for people with back problems aggravated by sitting, but I find standing for long periods can also irritate my back. If I could easily switch back and forth from sitting to standing computer access at my day job, I’d probably be better off. Some workplaces do offer a desk/computer setup that can be elevated and lowered for working while standing or sitting at whim, but not the one at which I’m consulting. Sigh.

    • Len permalink
      October 14, 2013 9:07 pm

      Oh, I’d love a treadmill desk for the same reason: health conditions improved by gentle movement. I just wish I could get one through work that wasn’t attached to some awful weight-loss proviso.

  3. shelly permalink
    October 9, 2013 12:32 pm

    At my company they now ask for blood work, health questionnaire, and fitness activities and you get so much money depending on your scores. The labwork counts for about half the total score. Many employees(of all sizes) do not want to do the lab work because they feel it is none of their employers business to know their health. They hired us based on job experience and degrees not how healthy we may or may not be.
    I think it’s just another way for employers to raise the cost to the employees and have an excuse to do so. Like mine says hey the cost went up $600 this year but you can offset by doing all this and getting a credit of $300.

    • October 15, 2013 4:25 pm

      My company does this too, although they don’t base the penalty on your lab scores. They just want us all to do their damn invasive questionnaire. We get penalized if we don’t do it.

  4. vesta44 permalink
    October 9, 2013 12:46 pm

    If employers are so concerned about attendance and productivity, why don’t they implement a program that actually tracks each employee’s attendance and exactly how productive they are when they’re at work? I’m betting that they would find out it’s not their “fat” employees who miss the most work or are the least “productive”.
    I’m DEATHFATZ, and I was also disabled when I held my last job (it was a sit-down job, doing data processing for a rebate company). When I quit because I was getting married and moving (would have had a 2-hr commute, one way), I had two weeks of PTO plus two weeks of paid vacation time. Every year, I ended up having to take part of my PTO hours in cash in order not to lose the time/money because I just didn’t need that much time off work for illness (if I did take a paid personal day, it was because I just wanted an extra day away from work, not because I was sick). And this fat, disabled woman not only managed to get my own work done every day, I also went looking for work in other departments because I wanted to keep busy (I could have sat and read books for a couple of hours every day after my work was done, no one would have known).
    It’s not being fat that keeps people from being productive at work, it’s all the handwringing about “obesity” and its workplace costs, and having people constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re working as hard as possible that hurts productivity (I’ve had a couple of jobs like that, and I hated them).

    • BBDee permalink
      October 9, 2013 6:58 pm

      Interesting…most of the “sick” days I’ve taken were because my stomach churned up thinking about facing another day of BS, much moreso than any actual “illness”…

  5. lifeonfats permalink
    October 9, 2013 5:14 pm

    Vesta, when one of my former jobs switched to a “use it or lose it” PTO policy, I had a week of vacation to use or I’d have none so I had to take time off when I didn’t need to. The break was nice but not necessary. And I was the fattest person out of a 4-employee team and didn’t take a lot of days off.

    As for tracking employee productivity that’s not weight-related, some call centers do that with software that counts how many minutes employees are on the phone versus break time. They did at the Saks Fifth Avenue call center I worked at during the late 90’s. There are lots of things they can do but right now they’re too hopped up on blaming fat workers for expenses. We’re an easy scapegoat because we’re visual.

    • BBDee permalink
      October 9, 2013 7:02 pm

      This reminds me of an idea I’ve had rattling in my head since grad school about the unintended BAD side effects of BAD performance monitoring systems. I could easily draw a parallel between misbegotten ideas like the actual correlation between “scans per minute” a cashier accomplishes at the cash register vs. how many customers actually get thru their line, and the spurious correlation between weight and REAL health factors… With all these defective measurement systems, the old computer term still applies: GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT!

  6. Dizzyd permalink
    October 9, 2013 5:59 pm

    ‘Fat shaming pictures and quotes’ – that should count as an ‘environment of harassment’, as far as I’m concerned. Phooey on these ‘wellness (sic) programs’! It’s just one more way to try to ‘nickel-and-dime’ their employees to death with idiotic policies that do nothing useful. And Peggy – don’t give the corporations any ideas! They may like it. I can imagine them issuing us our new uniforms: shackles and chains.

    • pearlsong1728 permalink
      October 11, 2013 1:07 pm

      Yeah, I would only advocate any treadmill (or standing) desk options in the workplace if they were clearly and completely VOLUNTARY (no overt or covert coercion, monetary or otherwise), and completely separated from weight and weight loss. Fat chance, huh?

  7. October 15, 2013 4:24 pm

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    Yep, we have this same shit where I work. Weight Watchers at Work. Weight loss competitions. And of course the annual “tell us how unhealthy you are or pay more every month” thing from the insurance company. Yes, it is triggering. Of course these bastards don’t care, just so long as Number 12 Looks Just Like You.

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