Imagine if you were a recovering alcoholic. You hadn’t taken a drink in quite some time, attended AA meetings conscientiously, and were getting on with your life. Then your employer had a drinking contest and told you that you weren’t drinking enough. Further, if you failed to drink more, you would be fined.
Preposterous? Yes — but that is exactly what people with eating disorders are forced to endure in many wellness programs. They are told to eat less to become thinner, docked points or money if they don’t, and are made to feel inadequate by vendors who have no idea what they’re talking about.
This is the fourth in the series of major wellness harms perpetrated on employees by wellness vendors and indifferent employers. These narratives have been painstakingly compiled, edited only lightly, and with no detail omitted other than the victim’s name and employer. I won’t tell you who the perps are yet, other than to say that the vendors I have consistently noted to be the best — American Institute of Preventive Medicine, Health Advocate, HealthCheck360, It Starts with Me, Limeade, Redbrick, SelfHelpWorks, Sterling, Sonic Boom, Sustainable Health Index, US Health Centers, US Preventive Medicine — are not among them.
- Part 1: Recovering executive with anorexia nervosa begs not to be weighed…DENIED
- Part 2: Recovering technologist with bulimia told to “fit into his skinny jeans”
- Part 3: Recovering employee with anorexia nervosa told “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and advised to eat only half her lunch.
I struggle with bulimia. My employer instituted a wellness program that requires employees to undergo yearly medical screenings of cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and body mass index. We also have to fill out an annual health questionnaire. Employees who undergo the screenings and complete the questionnaire receive a reduction in their health insurance premiums, whereas employees who decline to do either of these things cannot receive this reduction. If an employee’s spouse is covered under his or her insurance, the spouse must undergo the screening as well in order for the employee to receive the premium reduction.
The program recommends that you join coaching and weight management classes if the screening identifies your body mass index as “too high.” It suggests that being thin means being healthy, and being heavier means being less healthy, even though this is far from true for many people. For individuals who have struggled with eating disorders, it is particularly troubling to be labelled as having a weight problem or a problem with body mass index despite having worked closely with treating professionals to manage the disorder. Telling such individuals that they have a weight problem is precisely the type of response that professionals who treat eating disorders know to avoid. When nurses with no knowledge of our treatment history or progress, and no knowledge of eating disorders generally, respond this way, it undermines our treatment and progress. It is even worse when that undermining happens at one’s place of work.
Like the screenings, the health questionnaire inappropriately suggests that thinner is always better. Based on my answers, the wellness program assumes that I have unhealthy eating habits, but it does not account for the fact that my diet is carefully prescribed by my treating doctor in response to a multitude of food allergies. I am allergic to all grains, and as a consequence, in 2013 I switched to a natural fat, unprocessed, grain-free diet. My health markers began to improve at that time. The wellness program, however, identified my eating as unhealthy because of the fats included in my diet. As a result, I was docked “health points” and was given recommendations such as “eat less,” “unsupersize your meals,” and “go Mediterranean to transform your health and your weight,” and attend Weight Watchers. After receiving these messages that suggested I was overweight and eating poorly, I began experiencing greater symptoms of my eating disorder and began purging. While the wellness program did not start my eating disorder, it has certainly made it worse.