This posting is a request to self-anointed wellness industry leaders to pleeease stop picking on people because of their weight. It’s like you’re still in kindergarten, no offense intended.*
2016 was the year in which weight-shaming, weight discrimination and a generally dismissive and outright misanthropic attitude towards two-thirds of the country’s employees became a wellness industry thing. This started in January at Davos, where the head of a wellness vendor named Vitality announced what quickly became known as the Fat Tax.
Here’s how the Fat Tax would work. Companies would tell shareholders how many fat people they employed. Employers, presumably feeling shame over this disclosure, would be motivated to pay a “tax,” in the form of a fee to a wellness vendor — such as, coincidentally, Vitality — for screening and weight loss programs.
In addition to the out-of-pocket fee, employers would pull employees off the job for an hour too, to obtain this screening. In addition, there would be all the administrative time — making the rules and exceptions, catching cheaters (see below), getting the auditors involved, and so on.
All this for what, again?
J&J would have people believe that shareholders are demanding thinner employees. In reality, of course, shareholders could care less about the weight of employees, for the simple reason while weight makes no difference to most businesses (as we’ve proven), the cost impact described above of mass weigh-ins and disclosures would be quite high.
More important is the morale impact. Suppose an employee owns shares and the stock price is down. Next, suppose that shareholders have just been informed how many employees are overweight…and the guy in the next cubicle is obese. Suddenly, that employee can start blaming his co-worker for the loss in value of his 401K.
Your stock price is down, you need to rally the troops. Instead, the troops are turning on one another.
Incredibly, this idea did originally have momentum: along with a few drug companies that make obesity drugs that saw a potential market opportunity in the Fat Tax, IBM and even Pepsico were willing to put their names on it. The Fat Tax cabal also knows the value of the Harvard name: they paid a little-known instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), so that they could co-opt that moniker, just like the sugar industry used to do. Only the latter had a big enough budget to bribe two full professors rather than one lowly instructor.
However, the momentum quickly died once word leaked out that the very same Vitality that wants to collect money from others to administer weight loss programs couldn’t even get their own employees to lose weight.
Oh, and if you guessed that Ron Goetzel’s fingerprints were all over this one — just like almost every other debacle since Penn State — you obviously know the way the wellness industry works.
Ah well, as management guru Peter Drucker said, the only thing worse than a poorly conceived idea is a poorly conceived idea that is poorly executed.
Actually he never said that, likely because he was never enrolled in Vitality’s program.
Possibly because of the initial exposure the Fat Tax idea got, hazardous crash-dieting competitions came back into vogue this year. Crash-dieting competitions are the type of thing that gives idiocy a bad name. Let’s leave aside the fact that employees cheat, as this article shows. They don heavy clothes, fill their pockets and down bottles of water before the initial weigh in, and do the opposite before the final one.
And leave aside the fact that vendors can’t read scales. How hard is it to figure out that it is not possible for the majority of your crash-dieting teams to lose exactly 16.59% of their body weight? The odds of winning the lottery are about 1000 times better.
But the biggest problem is that corporate crash-dieting contests are much more likely to harm employees than benefit them. Money is on the line for successfully bingeing before the first weigh-in and starving oneself before the last. Companies are paying their employees to yo-yo diet. Jon Robison has recommended, and I agree, that crash-dieting contests (and other corporate weight-loss programs) should carry a label warning of potential harms.
These harms are fairly self-evident, but just to be on the safe side, Rebecca Johnson laid out the health hazards quite thoroughly in Corporate Wellness, in case anyone needs a refresher course, which apparently Omada does.
Yes, despite the perverse incentives and physical hazards of paying people to lose weight, Omada Health is proposing that health plans do just that. According to Omada, a health plan can save “billions of dollars” — that’s “billions” with a “b”, not “millions” with an “m” or “stupid” with an “s” — by trying to prevent diabetes, including paying members to lose weight. A health plan that offered members this pay-to-diet option would soon find itself deluged with enough takers to require a rate increase for everyone else.
In case anyone is wondering about Omada’s math, the median-sized health plan can’t save billions of dollars by getting people to lose weight because the median-sized health plan doesn’t even spend “billions of dollars.” And I don’t mean on diabetics, I mean in total.
Next, it appears that this year’s presidential campaign has made fat-shaming great again. One of the first vendors to jump on that bandwagon was Wellsteps, with the immortal words: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.” Eventually they took those words down, if only because a number of comments embarrassed them into it.
However, as Maya Angelou said, if someone shows you who they really are, believe them.
Finally, with his editorial in the American Journal of Health Promotion, Michael O’Donnell has out-stupided Vitality, Omada and Wellsteps: He is calling for employers to make employees pay for their health insurance per pound, sort of like buying lobster or sending packages. People say we make fun of the ideas the Wellness Ignorati come up with, but really all we do is repeat them — and occasionally illustrate them so that even the dumbest wellness industry leader can follow along:
*No offense intended to kindergarteners, that is, most of whom have better manners than this.
Brilliant and so sad at the same time! – where is the compassion? where is the science? where is the beef? – and perhaps most surprisingly, we actually know how to help people struggling with weight-related concerns to find peace with their bodies and their food – and in spite of the “stuckness” of the wellness industry it does not involve scales or caloric restriction or shaming or coercion. http://salveopartners.com/content/uploads/2015/03/SalveoWhitePaperPart1.pd – Dr. Jon
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Excellent observations, Al! It is much easier to become physically active than it is to lose weight, and the former is much healthier than crash dieting (note: I’m not recommending that sedentary people go through boot camp fitness training).
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Yes, that is also the view Quizzify takes.
I read these blogs because as a security analyst I follow a couple of companies in the business (and also they are very amusing). However, my company has weight loss contest and yes, of course we all cheat. As the other comment says, I am “fit and fat” and resent these contests greatly. I play out my resentment by cheating. It is way way easier than you say it is too.
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When you say “they are very amusing” are you referring to the blogs or the wellness companies?
Al, this is excellent. Like so much of what you do should be required reading for HR.