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Attention, employees who want to learn how to cheat in a corporate wellness contest: for the actual cheating hints, skim down to: “How to Cheat in a Crash-Dieting Contest.” The suggestions apply not just to corporate biggest loser contests, but to any corporate weigh-in where money is attached to weight. (This post is actually intended for your company’s HR people who for some reason think encouraging you to binge and then crash-diet is a good idea and don’t realize wellness is an obvious scam.)
Further, the law has changed (as of 2019) and you can now sue your employer if they fine you (or give you a high-deductible plan and make you “earn the incentive”) for refusing to participate in biometric screens and other clinical wellness activities. You can contact us for more information.
If we were real journalists here, we’d have killed a lot of trees in the cause of exposing the massive amount of lying and cheating by wellness vendors. However, as mere bloggers, all we do is kill millions of defenseless electrons.*
And yet we’ve sacrificed nary a single electron to the cause of exposing the massive amount of lying and cheating by the employees themselves. And massive it is. My very own extended family members are swapping Fitbits around to increase their steps. Less for the money than for bragging rights about who can game the contest the best.
Indeed, these corporate “challenges” are really mental challenges, not physical ones, to see who can do the best job outsmarting the wellness vendor. Outsmarting wellness vendors, as past columns have shown, isn’t exactly a heavy lift: we have often observed that the good news about wellness is that NASA employees don’t have to worry about their job security because wellness vendors aren’t exactly rocket scientists.
To that end, the Wall Street Journal wrote an entire article about employees cheating in wellness programs. Apparently, employees are enlisting puppies, hamsters, even power tools and a ceiling fan in their quest to undermine their company’s wellness program. One enterprising employee posted a youtube showing how to cheat on these programs. A Midwestern cadre of truly dedicated employees took cheating a bit farther than most, and got themselves indicted for defrauding Kansas City out of $300,000 by lying on wellness programs.
30-second shameless plug time
Of course, there is one surefire way to avoid the downside of cheating: design cheating into the program. And that’s exactly what Quizzify does. The way to cheat on Quizzify is to look up the answers and learn about health literacy — which is exactly what we want employees to do!
How to cheat in a crash-dieting contest
Employees especially like to cheat in crash-dieting contests, enough so that countermeasures are needed. For instance, a vendor named Healthywage is bragging about how it ferrets out “fraudulent participants.” I figured I’d see what the internet has to offer on corporate biggest loser program cheating, because, after all, these days almost every search generates tons of hits. I say “almost” because if you search on “honest wellness vendors” and “Wellsteps,” there is only one hit: my observation that the latter could never be confused with the former.
In particular, the search found a group called www.healthstatus.com, which has given this topic altogether too much thought, thankfully. In all fairness to the HealthStatus folks (who do seem very well-intentioned and on the level), before they list their recommendations, they provide a cigarette-type warning label, as these programs richly deserve:
It’s getting to be New Year’s resolution time and many companies will try and “encourage” weight loss with a “Biggest Loser” type contest. Frankly, this is really a bad idea, as it can create all kinds of bad habits and damaging activities by the participants, as they starve, dehydrate and supplement themselves in an effort to win.
Having gotten the grownup stuff out of the way, here are their “recommendations” for employees whose employers, like Schlumberger, somehow got the impression these contests are a good idea, perhaps because their mothers didn’t listen to enough Mozart when they were in the womb. A few recommendations are fairly harmless, like drink a lot of water starting 3 days early and don’t pee (or do number twosies) before your weigh-in. And, of course, wear heavy clothes, carry lots of change in your pockets etc. You know, your typical garden-variety dishonesty that is probably woven into the culture of any employer that sponsors these contests. (These employers think they are “creating a culture of wellness” when in reality they are creating a culture of deceit.)
By contrast, some of these other recommendations boggle our minds, and, having written exposes on the wellness industry for two years now, our minds are not easily boggled:
The day before the weigh-in, ideally about 17 hours or less before your weigh-in time, you want to get yourself a good salty snack. A bag of chips, you know the ones that if you eat too many your lips hurt from all the salt and a nice tray of cheese and crackers.
For your dinner meal you want to load up on the proteins and a big glass of whole milk, also, this is a day you want to skip the fiber. This is one day of eating like this, we don’t encourage it, but a binge day also sets up your metabolism to know that is not starving, and can help in when we start burning fat after the weigh-in.
The day of the weigh-in, minimize your activity, another big glass of whole milk with your breakfast that contains some salty options will help you retain more water.
“At this point,” they observe, “you should be a big bloated sloshing mess that needs to go to the bathroom really bad. This is the perfect time to get weighed and measured.” They also remind you to accentuate poor posture, since the long-since discredited Body Mass Index measure still preferred by most of these vendors is a height/weight ratio. (HealthStatus also offers hints for contests that use waist circumference.)
In other words, do all the wrong things — eat badly, slouch, and don’t exercise. Be as unhealthy as possible. So you’re already obsessing with your weight and abusing your body horrendously in the name of wellness…and the contest hasn’t even started yet!
I hate to leave everyone hanging but HealthStatus hasn’t published the rest of its recommendations yet, meaning advice on how to cheat during the contests themselves.
And a good thing because I don’t know how much more wellness a fellow can take.
Since self-abuse is actually a very serious topic, I would like to step out of character here and offer a few serious notes. First, no wonder Optum and HERO and other Wellness Ignorati are stonewalling the Employee Health Program Code of Conduct. Nothing violates it more than their cherished corporate crash-dieting contests. And a particular call-out of the biggest-loser worst offenders: Virgin Pulse (nee ShapeUp), Wellness Corporate Solutions and HealthyWages. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, even relative to other wellness vendors like Wellsteps, which had just recently established a new plateau for harming employees, that you people are blasting right through.
*Just for the record, we know that writing blogs does not kill or even injure electrons. And while Keas might find that being used in blog posts stresses them out, we would disagree. Quite the opposite: if they enroll in wellness programs, they can live to be 100.
Yes, we know you read this blog for the chuckles. Our most popular and funniest posts are usually the ones showcasing the wellness industry’s race to the bottom. And despite heavy competition, very few industry scams can beat corporate get-thin-quick schemes to that inexplicably coveted nadir:
- Here is Healthywage discussing its newest schemes, like “dieting for dollars” and “paying for pounds.” They also describe how to prevent “fraudulent participants,” a category presumably comprised of zombies and dead voters in Chicago.
- “In Wellness, Stupid is the New Black” shows how Healthywage can’t even read a scale.
- “Shape Up falls down trying to do math for Highmark,” about a weight-loss program so clueless that it got covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Perhaps our favorite is Wellness Corporate Solutions. We won’t ruin the punchline for you.
In sum, we say: “To call corporate crash-dieting contests a joke is an insult to jokes.”
Unfortunately for those of you seeking a few chuckles, this is not that situation.
Quite the contrary, Rebecca Johnson has penned one of the best articles on corporate weight loss programs we’ve ever seen, so we can’t dismiss it with our usual clever if by now overexposed putdowns like: “She should have had this reviewed by a smart person before publishing it,” or “Perhaps her subscription to the internet expired.”
Instead, rarely have we seen more intelligent observations packed into a tighter space, more thoroughly sourced and clearly explained. To summarize:
- Corporate crash-dieting contests are much more likely to harm employees than benefit them;
- They don’t produce an ROI;
- Our mothers were right. Eat a balanced diet. There are more benefits than one would think to not obsessing with what are the “best” and “worst” foods. (Having said that, some people seem to do very well on a low-carb diet. We leave that debate to others and recommend The Big Fat Surprise to readers with an interest in that topic.)
- It is better to be fit and fat (“health at every size”) than to yo-yo diet, for sure.
She goes on to explain her particular approach to mindful eating. I myself have no expertise in that area so I can’t critique the specifics, except to say that Healthywages, ShapeUp (now Virgin Pulse), and Wellness Corporate Solutions should definitely find a smart person to explain this approach to them, even if it means having to pay for an internet connection.
Wellsteps may be best-known for insulting the intelligence of its customers, by writing outcomes reports that show costs going up and down at the same time, and creating “ROI Models” that anybody can see are blatantly fabricated. However, their customers deserve what they get. No one is forcing them to retain Wellsteps. For example, if the Boise School District can’t figure out they got snookered, they need to go back to school.
On the other hand, overweight and obese people, like perhaps 2/3 of Boise’s teachers, who find themselves forced to submit to these programs at the pain of significant financial forfeitures, don’t have the option of firing Wellsteps or even walking away from them. In order to avoid forfeiting money, they must agree to be coached by a company that just announced that the reason people can’t lose weight is that: “It’s fun to be fat. It’s fun to be lazy.”
And: “Not everyone likes the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables, they would prefer chocolate, soda, and Cheetos.”
These lines were penned by Wellsteps’ Troy Adams, who proudly asserts as his qualifications that he “spent 11 years in college as a student and another 20 years as a professor.”
After a while, Mr. Adams realized that letting employees know how they really feel was a bad idea, so he went back in and removed the first line. He then apologized for Wellsteps’ insensitivity and complete lack of understanding about wellness.
Haha, good one, Al.
Obviously they didn’t apologize. To paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher Ryan O’Neal or maybe it was Ali MacGraw (I wouldn’t know because about halfway through the movie, I had to leave the theater to go puke), being a wellness vendor means never having to say you’re sorry. They just did the Ron Goetzel thing where you go back in and quietly doctor the original once you realized how much trouble you could get into by leaving the original original up. (The difference is, Ron does that with other people’s originals. At least Wellsteps only did it with their own.)
The Comments Say It Best…
Wellsteps didn’t exactly have an epiphany. They removed the line following scathing comments to the post. Adele Hite wrote:
This is reminiscent of arguments that the unemployed just don’t want to work (it’s fun to be poor! sleep late every day!). I thought we gave that up for more enlightened thinking, but I guess I was wrong.
Another health educator, Erica Thomas, wrote:
This article is appalling. “Fun to be fat”, “fun to be lazy”?! How do you conduct business with that mindset?
A third wrote:
Dear Mr. Adams, Do you truly believe that getting fat is fun and pleasurable? Have you ever been around anybody in this culture who has gotten fat? Do you truly believe that will power is all there is to the issue of fat?
The Regulators Will Sanction Wellsteps (not)
Yes, of course the comments are right, but there’s nothing we can do about Wellsteps. They will remain prominent on the Koop Award Committee (where the key qualification is having no qualifications) and of course the Health Enhancement Research Organization. There won’t be any sanctions by regulators because this industry is completely unregulated. Wellsteps can continue to pitch this line to unsuspecting employers as long as they can get away with it, and as long as employers don’t care about the morale of the 2/3 of employees who are overweight or obese.
As for Mr. Adams, his total lack of contrition indicates that there is no chance he has learned anything from this episode. Ah, well, to paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher Bluto Blutarski, 11 years of college down the drain.
While vendors like HealthyWage are pushing company weight challenges onto unsuspecting and poorly advised wellness directors — and wellness promoters at the University of Pennsylvania are subjecting their own employees to weight-loss experiments to encourage corporations to do more of them — real researchers are urging a halt to these activities. They do more harm than good.
We, of course, have been calling out fat-shaming for months on this site–with specific attention to companies like Johnson&Johnson, ShapeUp, and Vitality Group, all companies that want to profit from fat-shaming in various ways. In particular, we wrote a very well-received Huffpost on this topic three months back.
And a year ago, we called for an end to these fat-shaming programs, showing that they made no impact on health expenses, productivity or profitability.
However, we did not explore this topic remotely as well as Pat Barone, in today’s LifeZette. (While LifeZette is Laura Ingraham’s publication, Pat Barone lives in the People’s Republic of Madison, so the politics cancels itself out.) We urge everyone take a looksee here…and then when you’re ready to sue your wellness vendor and need an expert witness, who you gonna call?
We invariably get fast settlements. No vendor wants to face me in court, where even wellness vendors are required to tell the truth. Facts, as we often say, are the wellness industry’s worst nightmare.
Just when you thought wellness vendors have all finally connected to the internet, HealthyWage comes along.
They write: “Given the financial upside and the fact that they’re just plain fun, it’s no wonder that diet competitions and weight-loss betting programs are exploding across America and beyond.” Crash-dieting is “just plain fun” ? That recalls the line from Surviving Workplace Wellness: “Wellness programs are designed to make employees happy whether they like it or not.” More importantly and to elaborate on the opening sentence, HealthyWage has managed to overlook all the research, easily accessible online, that says:
- Short-term weight loss is meaningless;
- Weight cycling — exactly the type of thing crash-dieting causes — is harmful;
- Employers can’t get employees to lose weight, and even if they could, weight loss doesn’t generate savings;
- In the commercially insured population, no avoidable admissions can be avoided by weight loss betting, making HealthyWage’s “financial upside” claim about as likely as its claim that these crash diets are “just plain fun.”
HealthyWage is resuscitating the old “Biggest Loser Contests,” under two new names: “Diet for Dollars” and “Pay for Pounds.” After I read this, I checked my calendar. It assures me that we have not reached the end of March yet, which means these names are intended to be serious, as is the program. They really want you, as a wellness manager in an HR department, to institute crash-diet programs.
But not so fast. They urge you to first undertake “a touch of due diligence before you pay to play.”
Further, they thoughtfully provided the “due diligence” questions they advise HR departments to ask before retaining a vendor to weigh their employees. Let’s play a little game here. I’ll excerpt four real questions that HeathyWage wants you to ask, but then sneak in a fifth phony one. See if you can guess which question that should not be part of due diligence, according to HealthyWage. (By the way, you may find this hard to believe after you read them, but I am not making up any of the other four.)
- Where does your prize money for our employees come from?
- How do you verify the weigh-in and prevent “fraudulent participants” ?
- Will you show us the body of research highlighting the effectiveness of paying employees to lose weight (um, like this article)?
- Does your get-thin-quick scheme come with a warning label, and will you indemnify us if any of our employees harm themselves while bingeing before the initial weigh-in or crash-dieting before the last one?
- How do we get media attention when you weigh our employees?
Since the fourth question addresses the harms of the ironically named company’s program, and is the most important question of all, it is no surprise that this is the question they don’t want asked, the phony one I inserted.
While the fourth is the most important, the second the most inscrutable, the third the most impossible, and the first the most naive, the fifth is the biggest head-scratcher.
For the fifth, I have a follow-up question for HealthyWage: Why would you want people like me writing columns like this about programs like yours?
We never post on Sundays. We are making an exception today on the theory that a lot of people in the Northeast are at home and would welcome the distraction. Here in Massachusetts it’s so cold that the Governor is urging people to stay indoors. Heck, we even decided to cancel Ultimate Frisbee.
This is now the seventh time that the New York Times —or its The Incidental Economist bloggers (“TIE” as they call themselves) — has observed that conventional corporate wellness doesn’t work. Links to the previous six instances follow this posting. Perhaps the seventh time will be the charm. Having covered every other angle except the actual health hazards of wellness, this TIE post specifically eviscerates “biggest loser” programs and their brethren.
HR executives may think they are “supporting” employees by holding weight-loss contests or paying them to lose weight. Unfortunately, all they are doing is reducing self-esteem, encouraging crash-dieting before weigh-ins, drawing attention to people’s weight, and — in addition to distracting employees from their actual jobs — distracting them from the one thing that benefits people of all sizes: exercise. It is much better to be “fit and fat” than fight a losing battle to keep weight off with various fad diets.
Further, the Body Mass Index, the 200-year-old metric wellness vendors still use to establish how much to pay or fine employees, turns out to be a very misleading measure of population health. (As “Brad F.’s” comment to a previous blog pointed out, BMIs may be of value if conducted as part of an actual physician-patient relationship. However, actual medicine is of no interest to wellness vendors, other than making people get useless annual checkups. Most physicians practicing actual medicine find wellness programs to be a misguided nuisance.)
Worse than The Incidental Economist says it is
The case against these programs is even stronger than TIE says. TIE supports its case by citing randomized control trials. But if RCTs are the Gold Standard, the Platinum Standard is wellness vendors’ consistent and total self-immolation in attempting to show their own program impact– despite ample opportunity to manipulate data, select motivated participants, ignore dropouts, and run ridiculously short “weight loss challenges” that end before the weight is regained. We love to cite ShapeUp as an example of that, having exposed them in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (This was probably overkill on our part, but their CEO had thought a good way to get some attention might be to fallaciously attack our numbers even though his own figures were made up.)
Because great minds apparently aren’t the only ones that think alike, ShapeUp has plenty of company on the Biggest Loser List. Wellness Corporate Solutions has also been “profiled” on this site, largely for comic relief. Pfizer, where actively motivated employees lost a few ounces over a year, actually earned an award from Ron Goetezel for this stellar performance, as well as a spot on our Biggest Loser List. Our favorite example is McKesson. They also won one of Ron Goetzel’s Koop awards even though their average employee showed an actual increase in — you guessed it — BMI (and cholesterol):
If award-winning companies can’t get employees to lose weight, who can?
And where would a Biggest Loser List be without Vitality, which pitches its weight-loss program to others but can’t even get its own employees to lose weight? If wellness companies can’t get their own employees to lose weight, who can?
Where we differ with TIE is on weight control interventions for school-age kids. They quote one definitive-sounding study, with 4600 kids in it. We don’t have a problem with the actual study. However, because the long-term health and social prognosis for obese children is negative, and because this problem is so pervasive, we ourselves would insist on a much higher level of proof and more experimentation with different program designs before throwing in the towel on these interventions. (We may very well end up agreeing with TIE when all is said and done. We would just like more to be said and especially done.)
As for employers, our recommendation remains the same: do wellness for your employees, not to them. This means supporting employees who want to pursue health goals, but otherwise just leaving them alone to do their jobs. Don’t even make them play Quizzify if they don’t want to. (But they’ll want to — we guarantee it.)
The Incidental Economist/New York Times on Wellness: A Chronology
September 2014 TIE says wellness “usually” doesn’t work.
October 2014: TIE headlines: “Wellness Programs Don’t Seem to Work as Advertised”
December 2014 TIE says: “We’ve said it before, many times and in many ways, wellness doesn’t save money.”
February 2015 TIE headlines “Another Call to Eliminate Employee Weight Loss Programs”
October 2015 New York Times says: “Provide us with your...weight, or pay up.”
November 2015: TIE headlines “The Feds Are Wrong. Lots of Wellness Programs Violate the ADA.”
This J&J/Goetzel/Vitality proposal is a Fat Tax, pure and simple. If they are right about shareholders caring how many overweight people a company employs (and they aren’t), it is a tax on overweight employees, each one costing the company a slight amount of its market value. If they are wrong, this represents a pure transfer of wealth from corporate America and their employees to companies like Johnson & Johnson and Vitality.
Read the full posting here. Comment and share it.
By the way, these wellness people don’t understand math any more than they understand wellness. One of their premises for the Fat Tax is that over 14 years, companies with wellness programs outperformed the market. Besides failing to use sector indexes as benchmarks, they don’t understand the way compounding works. Suppose the average market performance is set to 0%. If all your stocks perform at a market level, your return will be 0%. However, if half of them increase 10% a year and the other half decrease 10% a year, you’ll be way ahead of the averages because each year the 10% increases are applied to an increasingly larger figure, and the 10% decreases are applied to an increasing smaller figure. And if you look at their portfolio, it’s disproportionately weighted to the healthcare sector, which boomed over the period, and the financial services sector, which dramatically contracted. Towards the end of the period, the performance of Citigroup etc. didn’t matter any more.
This is true even if you set the market performance to a figure other than 0%. It’s just clearer this way.