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Silly us. We thought Wellsteps’ wellness program was an outlier when it came to harming employees. But Wellsteps has nothing on Schlumberger. Almost immediately after reading last year’s post on the harms of crash-dieting contests run by Healthywage, Schlumberger instituted — hang on to your hats — a crash-dieting contest run by Healthywage. They even included some decent-size prizes — $1000 per winning participant. How did they finance those prizes, with sales of their drilling equipment falling by about half from its peak? Simple. They canceled their employee gym membership subsidy.
Then, as some may remember, it turned out that Healthywage’s understanding of arithmetic rivaled their understanding of obesity. In their contest, somehow five teams lost exactly 16.59% of their body weight. This is clearly alternative math, since the chances of that coincidence using real math are about 1 in 4 quadrillion, meaning that the odds of winning the lottery are about 1000 times better than the odds that Healthywage’s executives are not a bunch of idiots.
So Schlumberger harmed employees, wasted money, and got ripped off by alleged weight control experts who can’t read a scale. What does a company do in situations like this? Double down, of course. Literally. Yes, this year, they’re back partnering with Healthywage…with twice the prize money — $2000 apiece for the five members of the winning team.
They gave employees a week’s advance notice, so that they could pack on some pounds that they can take off later. Plus they could time their consumption of salt tablets, and concoct other ways to bloat up, before the contest began. Basically they needed to figure out how to become as unhealthy as possible, before starting the unhealthy process of crash-dieting. (As an aside, several teams apparently tried to recruit pregnant women whose due dates fall during the contest period.) And now that they contest is underway, who wouldn’t pop a few OTC diet pills to make $2000?
The difference is that this year, several concerned employees wrote to me and urged me to inform their benefits department of the indisputable facts that:
- Crash-dieting is a stupid idea;
- Offering prizes for crash-dieting is an even stupider idea.
I wrote the requested letter to Schlumberger, and explained all this to them, not that anyone with an internet connection should need an explanation of why crash dieting contests don’t work, or, more basically, why being stupid is a bad idea.
Their response? The benefits department appears to have tried to determine who sent me the announcement, presumably in order to get them fired. It was actually multiple people since I have family in Texas in the oilfield services industry. I had anticipated this, so I un-linkedin with all of them before writing to Schlumberger. I’ve learned through experience that in wellness, you need to anticipate the most inappropriate and misanthropic reaction to any helpful offer, because that is the reaction you will get. (For instance, rather than being concerned about Wellsteps harming their employees, the Boise School District wellness program coordinator told Wellsteps I was blowing the whistle on them for harming their employees.)
Update: Healthywage presents alternative math, Volume 2. If the rule is (as stated) that you must sign up in teams of five, what is wrong with this picture?
And just as I was about to click “publish,” I noticed alternative math, Volume 3. Apparently Healthywage thinks you can lose a high percentage of your total weight even if “you only have a little weight to lose”:
And that brings us back to the main, decidedly unfunny, point: crash-dieting contests, especially with big prizes, are a very bad idea…and companies like Healthywage ought to be ashamed of themselves for making a business out of harming employees.
Recently we described how to cheat one of those worthless, hazardous corporate crash-dieting contests, like the ones run by Wellness Corporate Solutions or HealthyWages or Virgin Pulse (nee ShapeUp). But we didn’t interview any employees who actually did.
Journalist and wellness expert Pat Barone, writing in LifeZette (Laura Ingraham’s popular online magazine) managed to do just that. She found some employees who “confessed” (bragged about) the ways they snooker these vendors — and of course their own employers –every year, starting again in most cases next month.
These employers, like Schlumberger, think they are creating a culture of wellness when in reality they are creating a culture of deceit, diet pills and dyspepsia. Why would any employer sponsor one of these contests? Simple: in wellness, stupid is the new black.
I don’t want to spoil your fun reading the article by giving away all the punchlines, but the keywords are carbs, sodium, and rocks. All the things that employees should eat, as part of a healthy diet. OK, maybe not too many vitamins but certainly lots of minerals.
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 atoms.*
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 Healthywages 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 atoms. 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.
Two separate reports confirm that employers have finally connected their computers to the internet.
First, the Wall Street Journal just reported that employers are cutting back on wellness programs. This especially includes the very same crash-dieting contests that we just invalidated in Employee Benefit News on Thursday. Those Virgin Pulse/HealthyWage abominations should be right up there with the Pontiac Aztek, New Coke, DDT, hair-in-a-can, and hands-free toilet paper on Time’s list of 50 inventions that never should have been invented. Here is an excerpt:
As employers begin to analyze return-on-investment and participation data, they “may be taking a step back,” said Evren Esen, director of survey programs at SHRM, the world’s largest society for human-resources professionals.
Employers “may be taking a step back”? As an understatement, that ranks with Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 comment that “killing, rioting, and looting are contrary to the best traditions of this country.” (And you thought we only dissed GOP politicians like Donald “Boom Boom” Trump. Quite the contrary. We are equal opportunity jerks.)
Second, after years of steady and hefty increases in employee incentives/penalties, the average non-participation forfeiture for wellness programs fell in 2015, from $693 to $651, according to the National Business Group on Health. So now it is only about ten times the total that employers spend on wellness-sensitive medical events (about $60 PEPY).
This decline was reported three months ago. It took a while for me to post it because it took a while for me to dig it up. Whereas previous NBGH annual surveys — showing the aforementioned massive increases — received a great deal of coverage in the media, NBGH buried the results of this year’s study, due to the decline in incentives. Publicizing facts is contrary to the best traditions of the wellness ignorati, of which NBGH is a founding member.
The bad news in the NBGH report is that even as average incentives declined, median incentives continue to rise. The good news is that NBGH actually understands the difference between the two words “average” and “median.” Quite an impressive feat, by their standards. It could be that they’ve finally taken my advice and hired a smart person.
If employers and consulting firms start taking that same advice, it could be the end of “pry, poke and prod,”…and a great shot in the arm for Quizzify.
Actually, just to clarify, we are quite supportive of screening according to actual clinical guidelines. Within the next month or two, Quizzify will be executing several partnership agreements with vendors to offer screening according to guidelines…and to use Quizzify for employees who are not due for screenings. If you are a vendor and would like to offer a similar program or an employer and would like to buy one, just reach out to us with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We promise that a smart person will follow up.
It turns out that HealthyWage’s “dieting for dollars” scheme, that I posted on yesterday, isn’t as bad as I thought. Apparently not all employees binge before the initial weigh-in, though many do. The good news is, some employees merely cheat! Here is how ConscienHealth describes it:
Mixed in with [HealthyWage’s] sales pitch is the smallest germ of truth. If you ignore the people that these programs harm and alienate, you can find employees who have fun with weight loss competitions. They form a team, pack on pounds before the competition starts, and revel in extreme dieting for the short-term results that these programs reward. We’ve seen people wear heavy clothes and carry rolls of coins for their initial weigh-in. Drink a two liter diet soda before you weigh in and you have a 4.4-pound advantage.
Sounds like rather than a “culture of health,” HealthyWage is proposing a “culture of deceit.” And HealthyWage isn’t alone. ShapeUp (now part of VirginPulse) and Wellness Corporate Solutions are also major promoters of get-thin-quick schemes.
Score another harm for the wellness industry. In future days I’ll be posting a comprehensive list of all the harms, direct and indirect, that “pry, poke and prod” programs, plus “dieting for dollars” have created in the corporate world. Hopefully there will be enough space on the internet.
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?