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The Workplace Wellness Industry’s Body-Shaming Hall of Shame
Note that this personal blog post does not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which I am affiliated, other than the one with which I co-founded. I am referring, of course, to the Needham Frisbee Club, where everyone is welcome to join and play and become fitter — since fitness at any size, not corporate crash-dieting contests, is the key to health.
By now, many facts are well-known about weight and weight loss programs:
- Variations in body size do not correlate with variations in willpower
- No one really knows why the country has gotten fatter since 1986, reversing the trend through 1985, and without understanding the causes of this fairly sudden reversal, it’s not possible to address it. (We do know that the lowering of cutoffs in 1989 created an additional 30 million “overweight” people in the U.S. overnight. http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9806/17/weight.guidelines/)
- It is much better to be “fit and fat” than to try to diet your way to health
- The vast majority of people who lose weight gain it back
- 1/3 to 2/3 gain back more than they lose
- No wellness vendor has discovered the secret to weight loss that has eluded researchers for decades
- The often quoted 90-95% failure rate of programs is likely underestimated.
Further, while perhaps not proven, there is growing evidence, also here, and here, that weight cycling may be hazardous to health. (This would likely be particularly true when an employer ties incentives to gaining weight for the first weigh-in in order to lose it by the second weigh-in.)
And, yet, a number of the workplace wellness industry’s very stable geniuses have chosen to body-shame employees. The individuals and companies listed below are the wellness industry’s leading body-shamers, charter members of the Body-Shaming Hall of Shame. No surprise that wellness luminaries are leading the charge towards body-shaming, as their industry has repeatedly been called words like “sham” and “scam” by Pulitzer Prize-winning media outlets not otherwise known for name-calling.
Where possible, we have provided contact information, that you can use to let the appropriate people know how you feel about endorsing body-shaming in the workplace. Obviously, one can never eliminate discrimination based on body type, but hopefully this exposé, and creating the Body Shaming Hall of Fame, will reverse the trend towards employer support of weight discrimination in wellness programs.
Troy Adams, Wellsteps
Wellsteps is known in general for harming employees, and won a Deplorables Award in 2016 for harassing Boise School District employees. Mr. Adams cemented his and Wellsteps’ candidacy for this list by declaring: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.” After receiving many complaints, he took that article down. But he never apologized and Wellsteps continues to pitch “wellness or else” programs in which employees are fined if they can’t lose weight.
Ignorance of physiology (fines and incentives have never cured any disease known to mankind) is quite consistent with the rest of Wellsteps’ philosophy. They also have no understanding of arithmetic (costs can’t increase and decrease at the same time), drinking (it is OK to have wine with dinner or a beer at a ballgame), smoking (smokers don’t take their first steps to quitting by smoking only on weekdays), nutrition (“one more bite of a banana” will not improve your health), and arithmetic again.
You can let Wellsteps’ largest client know how you feel about this by writing to the Boise School Committee at Jeannette.firstname.lastname@example.org and copying the editor of the local newspaper, Rhonda Prast, at email@example.com.
Michael O’Donnell, American Journal of Health Promotion
Michael O’Donnell served, until recently, as the prevaricator-in-chief of the industry trade publication, the American Journal of Health Promotion, which might as well be called the American Journal of Self- Promotion, for the simple reason that – despite the overwhelmingly poor economics of “pry, poke and prod” programs and their strong likelihood of harming employees – they have published only one single sentence critical of wellness…and when that was discovered to have slipped through pre-publication review by their thought police, they walked it back in the next issue.
Mr. O’Donnell was voted into the Hall of Shame thanks to his proposal to charge employees for insurance based on BMIs, a “pay what you weigh” approach, like ordering lobsters or sending a package.
His proposal should be read in its entirety (or at least the hilariously annotated version). Here are a few highlights:
- Prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam and hired only if they are in good shape. OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.” Hence, he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or outcomes analyst for a wellness company – because those jobs require only excessive lying.
- Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound.
- He would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.” Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.
If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight?
We aren’t making this up. Here is an excerpt:
He claims that all these weigh-ins and fines will create an “insanely great program” for employees, whether they like it or not.
Vitality Group, Johnson & Johnson – and Ron Goetzel
Where would a wellness-related Hall of Shame be without Ron Goetzel? Name a debacle or scandal in wellness, and his fingerprints are on it. Penn State, Nebraska, McKesson, Bravo/Graco, and of course Wellsteps come immediately to mind.
He was also the very stable genius behind the Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax. The Fat Tax was supposed to be a game-changer, ostracizing overweight folks with the misfortune of working for publicly traded corporations. In this scheme, companies would weigh their employees and then disclose those weights to shareholders. The shareholders would presumably reward those companies doing the best job of reducing employee weight, creating more profit for the wellness vendors, like Vitality or Johnson & Johnson, who would help employees lose weight. Ultimately it would be a tax, in that every employer that did not hire a wellness company and/or fire fat employees would see its stock price tumble, making wellness a mandatory fee.
While this “fat tax” would go a long way towards achieving the Wellness Ignorati’s goal of monetizing body-shaming, bringing financial disclosure into the picture raises all sorts of regulatory issues. Could you force employees to be weighed in order to meet SEC disclosure rules? What if employees cheated on the weigh-in, as employees are wont to do? Would that create a Sarbanes-Oxley violation?
There are three ironies here. It turns out that companies that are obsessed with prying, poking and prodding their employees, like McKesson, watch their stock prices tumble. And companies specifically obsessed with goading their employees into crash-dieting contests, like Schlumberger’s chart below, have the worst stock performance of all.
Second, it turns out that Vitality can’t get its own employees to lose weight, and yet they want you to hire them to get your employees to lose weight.
Finally – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – there is zero correlation between employee weight and corporate performance.
Mr. Goetzel works for Johns Hopkins and often places their name on his essays. If you have an opinion on whether Johns Hopkins should be supporting institutionalized body-shaming, you can express your opinion by writing to Dean Ellen MacKenzie at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Dr. Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, president of the Cleveland Clinic. After commenting that he would not hire smokers at the Clinic, he added that he would not hire obese people if he could legally deny them jobs.
So he doesn’t want to work with obese people, except if they happen to be president.
Dr. David Katz coined the term “oblivobesity” because apparently, he feels we have not yet made larger people feel bad enough about themselves to force them to do something about their weight – the difficulty of which has apparently been overstated because, according to Katz writing in the Huffington Post:
“There are rare cases of extreme weight loss resistance and such, but by and large, we can lose weight and find health by eating well and being active. Really.”
He deftly rebuts 30-plus years of consistent and conclusive research to the contrary by adding “really” to the end. Because everyone knows that makes a statement true. Really.
He also continues to illustrate his postings with pictures of headless fat people. And then there is his defense of Dr. Oz.
Please feel free to contact us about additional “shamers” you would like to add to the list along with the reasons why.
Final installment: 3 more stories of wellness shame and harms
Included in this concluding batch is yet another wellness program debacle regarding eating disorders. The irony is, this one takes place at an addiction facility. I’ve always maintained that, along with facts, integrity, math, data, employees and me, another thing the wellness industry has no appreciation of is irony. Examples:
- The most recent Koop Award for the best wellness program went to Wellsteps, who according to their own data made employees worse;
- Vitality pitches its weight-loss program even though by their own admission they couldn’t get their own employees to lose weight;
- The wellness industry’s own trade association, whose job is to show wellness saves money and improves morale inadvertently admitted that wellness loses money and damages employee morale.
This final set of case studies concludes with a statement from an actual named, LCSW who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
Links to previous installments:
- 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.
- Part 4: Recovering employee with bulimia and a severe grain allergy penalized for eating too many natural fats, as correctly prescribed by her dietitian…and begins purging again.
The school where I work recently instituted a wellness program. In order for our insurance premiums to not increase, we had to go through a series of tests: total cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI, LDL cholesterol and fasting glucose. If we did not “pass” 4 out of 5 of these biometric screenings, we had to go through six weeks of phone therapy and then have the screenings done again after that time.
If, after the six weeks of phone therapy, the results did not change, our insurance would go up about $50.00/month.
The whole experience was a nightmare. They conducted the screenings in the music room at school, with different tables and stations set up. About 10 or 12 teachers and staff members were in the room at one time, so there was little privacy.
We moved from one station to the next as each of our results was written down and passed to the next person.
When we got to the end, a wellness “counselor” went over our results. The lady saw my triglycerides number and immediately asked, “Does diabetes run in your family?” “Is obesity an issue in your family?” I asked why. She said that a high level of triglycerides means that the body has “too many fat cells” and that I am at an “increased risk.”
To someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, as I have, this was tantamount to saying “Because of your high triglycerides, you are fat. You are obese.”
Being weighed is always a humiliating and shameful experience for me, as it is for many people with eating disorders, and it can trigger exacerbations of my disorder (treating professionals familiar with eating disorders are well aware of this phenomenon and structure treatment accordingly). To have to be weighed in front of my peers made that experience even worse.
This biometric screening triggered my disorder. I was in tears by the time I got to the last “counselor” and had a very hard time controlling my feelings. Right after this, I needed to get into my classroom and be with my kids. I had to “suck it up,” until the end of the day.
It was horrible and it makes me wonder what is in our future in regard to all of this.
My workplace, an addiction treatment facility, has an employee “wellness” program.
If employees want to obtain the insurance “wellness rate” (the lower of two rates available to employees), we are required to start every year in January with a “health fair” and a “know your numbers screen” where they check weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol. Then we are “advised” by a registered nurse to exercise more and eat less (as if that had never occurred to anyone previously).
This year, the medical assistant drawing my blood engaged in numerous behaviors that would trigger most people with an eating disorder. She informed me she “used to be as big as” I am until she “got bypass surgery.” Despite mentioning several times that I see a nutritionist who recommends that I not weigh myself or know my weight, I was asked to guess my weight before I stepped on the scale. I turned around when I stepped on the scale to avoid seeing my weight, but the assistant nonetheless chattered on about my weight.
I was reminded of embarrassing weigh-ins with school nurses and weight loss programs before I was exposed to eating disorder recovery.
This year we are also assigned to a “wellness team” where everyone is supposed to wear pedometers every day and log their steps weekly on a website. Everyone can see everyone else’s steps on the site and a competitive spirit is encouraged.
I am especially saddened and concerned that we have this potentially damaging environment that encourages obsession with weight and numbers in a facility that treats addiction, where one would hope we would be steered away from, rather than toward, the process of addiction to disordered eating.
I have worked with hundreds of patients over the 13 years during which I have worked with people with eating disorders. In the past two years, I have seen a number of patients who were quite negatively impacted by the wellness programs at their place of work.
In one instance, a patient with binge eating disorder reported that she would be financially penalized if she didn’t set weight loss as a goal and make progress toward this goal. However, this was in direct conflict with her treatment goals to stabilize eating and set any goals for weight loss aside. This patient could see how focusing on weight loss increased her binge eating; however, she felt shame and anxiety as a result of these pressures put on her by her employer. She did not feel that as a larger-sized person she could speak up about this injustice.
In another instance, a patient reported that her employer required her to complete a health screening or be charged $600.00, and when she didn’t meet the health targets she was given an opportunity to still get the monetary “rewards” by meeting with a dietician three times. She was also informed that she could get a “Healthy Weight Improvement Reward” by losing five pounds since her last health screening. Again, this is a patient with binge eating disorder whose condition is destabilized by focusing on weight loss. She too felt that as a larger-sized person she could not speak up about how this program could cause her harm.
Next week, and with the help of others, we will ask, what does this all mean? What can be done to prevent or discourage wellness vendors from harming employees?
And once again, kudos to the good guys, the vendors who are not implicated in this series at all, and indeed would never do such things to people:
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
Announcing the Wellness Industry 2016 Deplorables Awards
For this year’s Deplorables Awards, I think we’re gonna need a bigger basket. As a result, this will be a two-part series.
Why? Because we need to accommodate all the bad hombres and nasty women who have subverted the perfect elegant philosophy of wellness into nothing more than a profit machine, with no regard for integrity, customers, or employees.
Yes, 2016 was a year in which a record number self-anointed industry leaders gave lying and cheating a bad name. In that sense it was no different from any other year, though 2016 offered even more good news and bad news:
- The bad news: not content with merely lying and cheating, this cabal branched out into harming employees, fat-shaming, and pure misanthropy;
- The good news: wellness did succeed in one way, as a “natural experiment” showing what happens in healthcare if being a provider requires no credentials beyond a GED, a driver’s license, and a pulse.
Indeed, whatever mathematician first postulated that everyone can’t be worse than average had apparently never experienced the wellness industry. (Exceptions of course, being the few that, like Quizzify, are validated by the Validation Institute or have accepted the Employee Health Program Code of Conduct.)
#10 Optum and Wellsteps (Runners-Up);
What do you do when you need to defend your blatant disregard of the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines? Simple — you blame your customers. Optum’s Seth Serxner said: “Customers make us” do this. Optum’s PR hack said I was making Optum “look bad.”
I said: “Sure, I’ll apologize. Just name one account that will admit to insisting on paying a higher price than you wanted to charge, in order to screen the stuffing out of their employees.” Never heard from them again.
Wellsteps got caught by ace reporter Sharon Begley of STATNews, and their CEO was forced to admit Wellsteps was violating USPSTF guidelines.
#9 The Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax gives misanthropy a bad name. (Honorable mentions to Vitality and Ron Goetzel.)
Misanthropy, greed, and weight-shaming provided the wellness industry with its key “talking points” in 2016. And nothing combined the three like the Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax fiasco. The point of the (apparently stillborn) Fat Tax was to stigmatize overweight employees, by “pressuring” (their word) companies into disclosing to shareholders how many fat employees they had. That in turn would somehow pressure these employers into spending more money on wellness vendors.
It’s not altogether clear what that disclosure would do for the actual overweight/obese employees, but somehow this disclosure was supposed to allegedly benefit shareholders. Indeed, the Fat Tax cabal is right about that in one respect: this disclosure would benefit shareholders — it would indicate to shareholders that they ought to unload their shares in a hurry, because management just disclosed it is stupid.
Vitality was a co-conspirator in hatching this scheme, which is ironic because they admitted they couldn’t even get their own employees to lose weight. And where you hear the word “stupid,” can the name “Goetzel” be far behind? This whole thing was his idea, based on the notion that “playing doctor” with employees makes stock prices increase. However, his claim that companies with Koop Award-winning wellness programs outperformed the market can easily be invalidated by anyone with a calculator and a triple-digit IQ.
#8 IBISWorld: How is wellness different from King Midas and Gold?
Here are links to the postings on the most hilarious report we’ve ever read about the wellness industry:
- New wellness industry report costs $5400 (but that includes shipping)
- New report raises the bar for cluelessness in wellness
- How is wellness different from King Midas and gold?
The answer to the question in the header? Everyone who touches wellness turns to stupid. Not just garden-variety stupid. More like fifty shades of stupid.
Mind you, most wellness industry leaders don’t need to touch anything first before reaching that endpoint, but occasionally a company like IBIS, with no prior experience in wellness, ventures into this field — and that’s where the fun starts. These IBISWorld Young Turks (literally–the writer is named “Turk”) are so excited about this industry, they practically speak in tongues:
Wellness firms may offer employers stress management courses and sessions that offer music therapy, aromatherapy, Tai Chi, and post disaster stress reduction through coaching.
Government-funded initiatives that promote wellness to cut costs related to chronic ailments (e.g., obesity and diabetes) has further exacerbated many businesses movement toward purchasing corporate wellness services.
And my own personal favorite:
The industry provides wellness programs to businesses across the United States, including small, medium and large businesses in the private sector and businesses in the public sector.
“Businesses in the public sector”? I knew that many of our legislators are for sale but I didn’t realize they had incorporated.
#7 Healthfairs USA Raises the Bar for Misbehavior
Healthfairs USA doubled down in 2016 on lying and cheating with an elegant new strategy: insurance fraud. They not only harm employees, but bill insurance companies directly for the privilege of paying for those harms. They offer cancer tests that are “99% accurate” (hence their multiple Nobel Prizes), and over-the-counter nutritional supplements…all of which are covered by most insurance companies because they get a doctor to sign a claim form.
Disclosure: we aren’t entirely sure that billing insurance companies for USPSTF D-rated screens and worthless, possibly harmful, pills constitutes insurance fraud. Our opinion is probably no more accurate than their cancer tests.
#6 Aetna’s DNA wellness program combines junk science, junk math, and junk integrity
In 2014, Aetna decided to “play doctor” with obese members of self-insured customers by telemarketing their employees to pitch very controversial high-priced drugs whose sales are “flailing” because almost no patients seem to want to take them. Among other things, Aetna said these drugs increase productivity even though right on the label, the drugs warn that they could reduce productivity (attention span and language facility).
Not content with the warm welcome that scheme brought them, in 2015 they introduced a DNA-based wellness program and claimed a whopping $1464/participant in savings. What put the whop in that whopper were these two tidbits. These savings were achieved:
- in the first year alone;
- on participants who were not actually sick to begin with. (You couldn’t qualify for this study if you were already sick.)
The reason Aetna needed to fabricate such a high savings figure is that the wellness field requires ROIs greater than 2-to-1, and this DNA test sells for $500/employee. So you need to show savings between $1000 and $1500.
Also, in 2015, we were able to show the program was completely ineffective, a convincing enough demonstration that one of the board members of the journal that published the study with the $1464 claim publicly apologized.
What do you do when it turns out your science is all wrong (news flash: being told you have a gene for obesity doesn’t motivate you to lose weight) and your math is all wrong? Of course, you apologize and retract the study, and offer to return the money to the lucky few companies that signed up for your program.
Haha, good one, Al. Obviously, like all the other Deplorable Award-winners on this list, you sell your snake oil harder than ever, and that’s what gets them on the 2016 list. Whereas in 2015, they could use the dumb-and-dumber defense, this year they know the numbers don’t add up and yet they are still flogging it.
Don’t miss the slam-bang conclusion as we count down to #1. Will Ron Goetzel retain his crown, or will he be unseated as the wellness industry’s #1 Deplorable?
Yes, we realize he has already appeared on this list at #9, but many lists feature the same entities making multiple entries. For instance, the Beatles once held positions #1 through #5 in Billboard’s Top 40, so it can be done.
Not that I want to put any ideas in his head.
In workplace wellness, fat-shaming is the new black.
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.
Another Expert Slams Fat-Shaming Corporate Weight-Loss “Challenges”
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.
NY Times Economists Diss Corporate Weight-Shaming…but It’s Even Worse than They Say
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.”
Johnson & Johnson Proposes a “Fat Tax” on Businesses
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.
Overweight? Johnson & Johnson’s Dream Is Your Worst Nightmare
Every time I think wellness promoters can’t possibly match their previous shock-and-awe levels of egregious statements and proposals, they come through with another one. This post is from the employee’s viewpoint. To see it from the employer’s viewpoint, view the posting on the Proposed Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax. That company wants corporate America to pay them to count the number of overweight employees a corporation has.
PS Obviously we don’t have any money to oppose this with, so please share it on social media.
Suppose there were: (1) a widely held but false perception that gays had lower productivity and higher healthcare costs than straights; (2) false literature that companies with gay conversion programs outperformed the stock market; and (3) a proposal that companies disclose to shareholders the percentage of gays they employ.
Obviously, many corporate CEOs would stop hiring gays, de facto require gay conversion among current employees, and fire gays who failed the program, in order to maximize stock price and hence their own net worth.
Preposterous? Of course, but if Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Vitality Group and a few pharmaceutical companies get their way, this exact same scenario will befall overweight employees. Indeed, two-thirds of this dystopian scenario is already in place:
- Despite proof to the contrary, the popular misperception is that working-age thin people have higher productivity and spend less on healthcare than working-age overweight people;
- To help bring weight discrimination into the boardroom, some wellness apologists — led by Ron Goetzel, of course — published a facile and misleading study in a third-tier journal (that had already admitted poor peer review practices) showing companies with wellness programs (the obesity equivalent of gay conversion in ineffectiveness, and almost as likely to harm participants) outperformed the stock market. The opposite is actually true, if one uses sector indexes as benchmarks. (This is the correct methodology with small numbers of companies concentrated in a few industries. And it’s the correct result given the fact that conventional “pry, poke and prod” wellness loses money, period.)
To complete this trifecta of weight discrimination, all that remains is to convince publicly traded corporations to disclose the weight of their employees…and that’s exactly what this cabal — led by J&J and Vitality — proposed at Davos. (They also want companies to disclose their stress levels. I have no idea how one measures stress. The one company that tried measuring stress, Keas, failed both miserably–and, this being the wellness industry, hilariously.)
Weight measures used by companies are also facile and misleading. Typically — as with Vitality Group, an outspoken advocate of this proposed regulation — they use the Body Mass Index, or BMI. The BMI was invented by a mathematician 200 years ago, using a simplistic formula that he could never really justify…and yet has been the de facto standard for measuring overweight ever since. It’s misleading along many dimensions. Further, it now turns out that the whole workplace BMI obsession might be pointless, as people with normal BMIs are at higher risk than people with high BMIs, if their weight is distributed badly. Most recently, it’s been shown to be just plain wrong, doing a horrible disservice to overweight people and, in some workplaces, costing them money,
While I can’t explain why PepsiCo would be signing on other than for corporate image reasons, the agendas of J&J and Vitality are quite clear: disclosing weight to shareholders would encourage publicly traded companies to use “pry, poke and prod” workplace wellness services, which they coincidentally happen to provide. (The drug companies involved, such as Novo Nordisk, stand to benefit from selling more drugs.)
Unintended Ironies: A Hallmark of Wellness
Ironically, though, during that same Davos meeting, Vitality also candidly admitted that their wellness services don’t work even in the best-case scenario of their own employees. That admission undermines the entire fiction that this scheme would somehow benefit the employees being fat-shamed.
Here is another irony. (One hallmark of the wellness industry is its obliviousness to its own many ironies.) This industry thrives on being totally unregulated — uniquely in healthcare, wellness companies and individuals face no licensing, education, training, oversight or certification requirements. Consequently they can and do get away with whatever they want. And yet now they want every other company to make more disclosures in regulated filings, for no purpose other than enhancing their own bottom lines.
Still another irony: The prime schemer behind this initiative, David Yach of Vitality, assured STATNews that existing laws would prevent employees from bring fired due to weight. But “existing laws” don’t prevent anything in wellness now. A federal court says it’s fine to deny insurance to employees for failing to participate in wellness. And despite flouting federal health guidelines with impunity, no wellness vendor has ever been prosecuted for doing things to employees that would get doctors sent to jail. And as Health Fitness Corporation learned, you can lie to states as much as you want about anything — including saving the lives of cancer victims who don’t have cancer — and not be prosecuted. Indeed, no wellness company or program has ever been successfully prosecuted or sued for anything under “existing laws.”
The Inevitable Result: Institutionalized Weight Discrimination
Many things in life have unforeseeable consequences. However, the consequence here is perfectly foreseeable: If you are overweight or especially if you are obese, you should be able to keep your current job if your company likes your work. But your chances of getting hired anew by a publicly traded company — if you are competing for the job with an almost-but-not-quite-equally qualified thin person — would nosedive.
I rarely editorialize in this blog, because I don’t have to — facts are the wellness industry’s worst nightmare. (See the Vitality example above. I don’t need to come out and say they’re clueless. I merely highlight the data they themselves helpfully provided to make that conclusion self-evident.) However, I’ll make an exception here: I find it appalling that J&J, Vitality, and Novo Nordisk advocate subjecting huge numbers of employees to institutionalized discrimination and to programs that they admit don’t work, simply to make a few bucks.
Vitality’s Glass House: Their Own Wellness Program Fails Their Own Employees
By now our mantra is well-known amongst the Welligentsia: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
Today’s example: Vitality Group. They have already been profiled here, as one of the approximately eleventy zillion wellness vendors who don’t understand wellness. Their customer, McKesson, was also profiled for showing massive savings despite the apparent failure of their wellness program to make a nontrivial impact on smoking or weight or anything else. Even Employee Benefit News piled on that one.
However, if there is anyplace wellness should work, it’s at a wellness vendor, right? After all, it’s a closed system. There is huge bias among the investigators, the subjects of the experiment self-select to go work at a wellness vendor, and presumably they have a state-of-the-art program. So if Vitality showed positive results at its own workplace, no one would put any stock in them.
But what if they show negative results? What if a wellness vendor can’t even make wellness work for its own employees despite all the biases, self-selection and program excellence?
In today’s STATNews, Vitality admitted its own inability to both “do wellness” on its own employees and to measure the results of their own programs on their own employees. According to the article itself, the percentage of employees who are eating badly increased 2 percentage points. This is ironic given that they eat at least one meal a day at work. So much for “serve healthier food in the company cafeteria,” one of our fallback recommendations that seemed like it couldn’t miss. Even a wellness company can’t pull it off. (In all fairness, though, I have eaten at Healthways’ cafeteria. The food is fabulous and healthy…and they grow a little of it themselves out back.)
But wait…there’s more.
The weight of employees climbed as well. Employees with high BMIs rose from 58% to 60%. OK, so employees got fatter. Big deal. We’ve proven no correlation between weight and financial savings, and we have also urged employers to stop embarrassing employees because of their weight. Vitality does the opposite — weight-cycling, which is probably unhealthy. They promote a biggest-loser program called the “10-Ton Challenge” to see which department can lose the most weight.
What makes this a classic wellness story is that “employees lost a collective 210 inches from their waist circumference.” How can BMIs be rising at the same time waistlines are shrinking? Perhaps everyone is popping steroids, so their weight is being redistributed? Or maybe BMI is, as many people have said for years, the wrong measure? Or maybe they are not counting employees who gain weight, a la ShapeUp?
Whatever it is, in classic wellness vendor fashion and as our mantra predicts, Vitality has now proven exactly the opposite of what it intended to prove, which is that their own program doesn’t work in their own company. Their “collective” weight-loss claims self-invalidate due to a fundamental, massive, inconsistency in their own reported findings that, in classic wellness vendor fashion, they didn’t explain — either because they didn’t notice or figured we wouldn’t notice.
But we did.
Is Wellness-Driven Life Insurance Hancock’s New Coke?
John Hancock Insurance recently announced a plan to sell life insurance based on healthy behaviors. You get a discount on life and disability insurance for exercising and reporting good blood values on an ongoing basis, not just once when you sign up.
While we have been quite vocal in saying wellness is a waste of money and potentially injurious to health and morale (and lately the two wellness trade associations themselves have candidly supported that position), we find Hancock’s strategy to be a shockingly good idea.
There are many distinctions between Hancock’s offering and health insurance. First, life and disability insurance are opt-in products. No one is forcing you to buy them in order to get health insurance at work, or fining you if you don’t. No one is violating USPSTF guidelines, screening the entire workforce, or making you get checkups that are worthless at best.
Second, the same numbers that don’t remotely add up for wellness add up quite elegantly for life and disability. Cut 50% out of your heart attack rate for the latter and you probably reduce overall claims payout by 5%. Cut 50% out of your heart attack rate for health insurance and you reduce overall claims payout by less than 1%. Additionally, Hancock can possibly accomplish that goal through underwriting. An employer doesn’t have that option. So besides being worth more, a 50% reduction is achievable.
Finally, they should be able to generate some good self-selection into this product. People have to be willing to give up some privacy, and our colleague Anna Slomovic is quoted on this topic in the article in the New York Times, but as long as you know what risk you are taking and as long as there is some recourse, it isn’t the same thing as being forced to reveal personal information for a wellness program.
One asterisk: the article says they are relying on Vitality to come up with the risk adjustments. I doubt seriously that is the case. Hancock has real grownup actuaries whose job it is to price these risk adjustments. We assume the article is wrong — Hancock isn’t going to rely on a vendor that can’t even quote Dee Edington correctly and doesn’t understand how to design a study.
Absent that asterisk, we are confident that they will be successful and wish them the best of luck.