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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.
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.
Our book title Surviving Workplace Wellness was intended to be figurative, but a new study shows it should be taken literally.
In the issue of Annals of Internal Medicine published today, a study of tens of thousands of people shows that a low BMI is associated with a higher death rate than all except the highest BMIs in women. In men, the lowest quintile of BMIs is associated with the highest death rate.
The study also shows that BMI is a poor predictor of death, as compared to body fat composition. This conclusion mirrors that of another study published last month.
Once again, the wellness industry strikes out. Their obsession with reducing BMI might actually be leading to a higher death rate among their customers’ employees. We say “might” because the study was careful to say that low BMIs “were associated with” a higher death rate, not “led to” a higher death rate. Wellness vendors and consultants love to conflate correlation and causality, but we can easily resist that urge, thanks to our triple-digit IQs.
Naturally, ShapeUp is one of the worst offenders. As you can see, they automatically associate “improved health” with lowering BMI.
So is workplace wellness killing people by getting them to reduce their BMI? Unlikely. It’s not just that the link may not be causal. There is a more important reason: ironically, wellness is too ineffective to harm people. Since basically no one ends up actually keeping the weight off using the pay-for-performance methods embraced by wellness promoters, there is no meaningful long-term reduction in BMIs. So even if low BMIs caused premature death, employees have nothing to fear from these programs.
And even those poor Highmark employees subjected to ShapeUp’s get-thin-quick scheme advertised below probably have nothing to worry about: the “163 employees” mentioned above only represent about 1.5% of participants, and given that Highmark fired ShapeUp, it’s likely that most of them gained the weight back anyway.
Who says the country is polarized? In wellness, bipartisanship rules!
Having just been eviscerated by the Guardian on Monday, today wellness got quite literally its worst coverage ever — from the blog of Laura Ingraham. Yes, the very same Laura Ingraham who has her own radio show and guest-hosts The O’Reilly Factor. This may be the only instance ever in which the left-wing Guardian agrees with the right-wing Laura Ingraham.
The wellness industry is running out of wings.
Hers is just the latest media salvo. Right, left, and center — the same media that used to fawn over this stuff (“everybody wins — employees are healthier and employers save money”) — has consistently been savaging these vendors and “pry, poke and prod” programs worse than we do, ever since Penn State.
Because we are an equal-time blog, we’ll review both the Guardian’s and Ms. Ingraham’s. However, read our entire posting. I will hint that, regardless of politics, you will think we are saving the best for last. (Actually, since we strive for 100% accuracy, we should say we are saving the better for later.)
The Left Wing
The Guardian published an extensive article on the privacy invasion that can accompany wellness programs. Much as I am not a fan of “pry, poke and prod,” I do think the folks who attack wellness on the basis of privacy substantially overstate their case. There are many things wrong with wellness, but we need to tell the truth on this site, since we are in the “integrity segment” of the market. And the truth is that wellness vendors don’t hand over employee personal health information (PHI) to employers. Not that we want to give them any ideas.
PHI can also be leaked accidentally, of course. Staywell wasn’t exactly forthcoming about this so you may not have heard about it, but they got breached. Hence we would recommend that you “stay well” away from them as a wellness vendor. Other wellness vendors have managed to keep hackers at bay. It could be airtight security measures on the part of the industry, but it’s more likely that hackers simply have no interest in wellness data because of its worthlessness.
Still, these wellness people have no one but themselves to blame when articles like this get published. Castlight, for example, is feeding this beast by boasting that they can predict who is going to become pregnant. The Guardian called them out on this. I have nothing against Castlight but that is eerily reminiscent of the Highmark/Goetzel/Penn State debacle when women were fined $1200 if they didn’t disclose their pregnancy plans on their health risk assessments.
And how did The Guardian write a couple thousand words on privacy without noticing Aetna’s employee DNA collection-and-storage program? In all fairness, it probably never occurred to them that a major company would ever do such a thing, so they didn’t think to look for it.
And basically every article ever published on privacy starts with the assumption that these programs must save money. Otherwise why would employers do them, given their cost and morale impact? So the Guardian never called out these vendors on lying about savings.
The Right Wing
The Guardian’s smackdown is figuratively and almost literally yesterday’s news. The news got worse today, for the wellness industry. The LifeZette (the name of Laura Ingraham’s website) skewered the wellness industry to a degree never seen outside this blog. The LifeZette article starts by pointing out that no one even pretends any more that there is an ROI from wellness. (We just covered that newfound wellness industry candor from a different angle, in Insurance Thought Leadership.)
The article also laments the lack of regulation in wellness, possibly the only time in history when any even loosely Fox-affiliated publication has opined that there isn’t enough government regulation of something. They are, of course, right. There is literally no defense of unregulated wellness industry practices that are more likely to harm employees than benefit them, just to line their own pockets. No doctor could get away with this.
Absent regulation, the article points out that companies like ShapeUp — specifically, ShapeUp — harm employees with their yo-yo dieting programs. The reporter, Pat Barone, extensively documents the harms that ShapeUp creates with its get-thin-quick “challenges,” and then notes many other harms wellness programs can cause.
We never take sides in politics on this site. Instead we frequently note — as in this posting — that both “wings” agree with us. But I will give a shout-out to this right-wing site here. Ms. Barone’s article absolutely nails the dishonest and harmful business practices of ShapeUp and others.
Usually we try to end these postings with a clever line of our own, but instead we’ll end with one of Barone’s:
The [new] alliance of ShapeUp with the two additional companies [Virgin Pulse being the lead dog], presumably means many more crash dieters wreaking havoc on their future health.
Please add comments here when you’re done reading it. LifeZette doesn’t take comments.
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.”
Here is our Huffpost on fat-shaming. We of course encourage click-throughs (and “likes” and shares!) but the Reader’s Digest version (if you are under 30 ask your parents what that expression means) is:
- Many wellness programs embarrass overweight employees due to a simplistic notion that their inability to keep weight off is due to a lack of willpower. Of course, that facile hypothesis got disproven decades ago, about the time real researchers concluded that homosexuality is not a “lifestyle choice.” The wellness industry does tend to be a few decades behind the curve, though.
- This is especially the case for older employees, for whom weight loss is more difficult. It is also quite possible that some extra weight is protective in older adults.
- There is no rationale corporate objective that gets served by jawboning employees into weight loss (unless you’re a ballclub, specifically the Red Sox, and your two 2015 high-priced free agent signings weigh as much as three regular-priced free agent signings).
- Typical corporate weigh-loss programs are more likely to encourage unhealthy eating behaviors than help your employees become healthier.