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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.
The 2016 Wellness Deplorables Award winner: Wellsteps
This completes our year-end series on the Goofuses and Gallants of the wellness industry. See:
- Announcing the 2016 Deplorables Awards
- Wellness Industry Stars of 2016
- So Many Candidates for the Deplorables Award Countdown, So Few Numbers between 1 and 10
- Wellness Stars of 2016, Part 2.
Are you smarter than an award-winning wellness vendor? Take this quiz and find out.
Q: How is the first unlike the second?
The first, Wellsteps CEO Steve Aldana, claims that it’s bananas that provide magical powers. And unlike Popeye and spinach, he doesn’t think we need to consume massive quantities. “Even one more bite of a banana” is all it takes to reduce overall costs by fully a third, despite their admission that costs for individual employees increase by about the same amount over the same period.
Yes, you read that right, and, yes, is it mathematically impossible for a number to go up and down at the same time. I noted in Wellsteps Stumbles Onward that Wellsteps had accidentally told the truth on the second display showing increasing costs, thus totally contradicting the first. The second display subsequently disappeared.
Perhaps Wellsteps deliberately made up the first slide to fool people (in this case, the Boise School District). The more charitable explanation, which shows Wellsteps in a better light, is that they didn’t deliberately lie when they said costs increased and decreased at the same time. Instead, they were simply confused by their own stupidity.
Lying is a Business Strategy
Wellsteps’ Linkedin group is called Wellness is a Business Strategy. I was banned from posting on it, accompanied by the following invocation of the First Amendment:
“It has come to our attention that an outspoken critic has entered false data into these calculators in order to make a point. We certainly support free speech; however, we wonder how valid the point can be when it is based on false data?” [Where “false data” is defined as “any data”]
Sounds like they support free speech…except when they don’t. Speaking of supporting free speech, they claimed in bright red letters — for no apparent reason other than they were probably suffering withdrawal symptoms from having gone a whole week without lying — that they had convinced Linkedin to ban us from posting. And yet many of you clicked through from linkedin. So here we are, posting.
Stupid is a Business Strategy
Wellsteps’ ROI model doesn’t generate an ROI. It doesn’t even generate a savings projection. What does it “generate”? One number: $1359. Yes, it always gives the same answer ($1359 savings per employee) if you zero out “annual cost increases” in their model to control for inflation. So anyone can see this model simply makes no sense, notwithstanding Wellsteps’ insistence that it is “based on every ROI study ever published.”
How stupid is Wellsteps’ model? Even Ron Goetzel refused to defend it. And when Ron Goetzel won’t defend stupid data fabricated by his friends, you know it’s bad.
Harming Employees is a Business Strategy
To win the Deplorables Award, outlying and outstupiding other vendors is a dicey strategy due to all the competition trying to do the same thing. So Wellsteps decided to boldly go where no vendor has gone before: they acknowledged, even bragged about, harming employees. Sure, plenty of vendors harm employees–by enticing them into crash-dieting contests, flouting clinical guidelines or giving them worthless nutritional supplements and billing their insurers. But no one had ever documented the before-after harms of wellness as conscientiously as Wellsteps did, which I helpfully displayed in detail.
Insults are a Business Strategy
What the judges here at TSW especially liked about Wellsteps’ candidacy for the Deplorables Award was their track record of not just harms and deceit, but also insults. Very clever ones too.
For instance, Wellsteps’ rebutted my observation that all their data is fabricated by saying I’m full of “hot air.” Touche!
One would think that that this guy (Mr. Aldana’s crony) could have come up with a better counterargument, given that he claims to have spent “11 years in college.” If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four more years than Bluto Blutarski.
Here are a few more targets of their ripostes:
- Everyone who is overweight: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.” They skewered 2/3 of the population in 10 words. Bada-bing!
- Sharon Begley, arguably the best health/science journalist of our generation. Mr. Aldana called her a “lier.” Her crime? Quoting him verbatim.
- WELCOA‘s exemplary leader, Ryan Piccarello. For not wanting to harm employees, Ryan is apparently part of a “gang of bullies.”
Such brilliant repartee, in an earlier generation, would have landed them a seat at the Algonquin Roundtable.
Bananas are a Business Strategy
So, congratulations to Wellsteps for winning their first Deplorables Award. Darwin will take it from here, and maybe get them a new gig more appropriate to their capabilities.
Oops, they did it again. Wellsteps stumbles on integrity one more time.
There are three ways to win a debate:
- Cite facts that support your position.
- Be smart enough to win a debate even though the facts go the other way.
- Break your opponent’s microphone.
Let’s consider each possibility in turn:
- Not a chance–Wellsteps won a Koop Award. When was the last time you saw a bona fide fact in a Koop Award application? Certainly STATNews doesn’t seem to have found any. And if Wellsteps had an actual fact in their favor — meaning if we were wrong about one single solitary thing — don’t you suppose they would have stumbled onto it by now? Don’t you suppose that just one of their insults would be grounded in reality? In the immortal words of the great philosopher Rick Perry, even a broken clock is right once a day, so the score is: Broken Clocks 1, Wellsteps 0.
- Smart? Hello! We’re talking Steve Aldana and Wellsteps here, not to mention Troy Adams, the originator of the Wellsteps tag line: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.“
- Bingo. That’s what Wellsteps just tried to do. When all else fails, cheat. They tried to get Linkedin to shut us down for “bullying” them by adding up their own numbers. Here is their exact “update,” which they were kind enough to put in red so you can’t miss it. To paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher Michelle Obama, when they go low, we go paste:
And yet you may have just clicked through to this post from Linkedin, meaning that reports of our death (me and Jon Robison of Salveo Partners) are greatly exaggerated.
The irony is, Wellsteps doesn’t understand irony
The irony is, what greater form of bullying is there than to try to muzzle someone whose only crime was to agree with Wellsteps’ own data?
The other irony is, Wellsteps’ CEO recently wrote: “We certainly support free speech:”
It has come to our attention that an outspoken critic has entered false data into these calculators in order to make a point. We certainly support free speech; however, we wonder how valid the point can be when it is based on false data?”
I guess, to paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher John Kerry, Mr. Aldana was for free speech before he was against it. (Is “entering false data” like “bearing false witness”? If so, we yield to Wellsteps’ expertise. And we did enter every combination of data imaginable into their “calculator.” It always gave the same answer. Try it. It’s like wellness savings measurement-meets-Fisher-Price. Just make sure to zero out inflation.)
Being in the “integrity segment” of this industry, we aren’t exactly big fans of Ron Goetzel, and the longer he lets his cronies at Wellsteps keep their Koop Award, despite it now being well-established that they harmed employees in multiple ways, the more his own sullied reputation suffers. However, we will acknowledge one thing that Ron Goetzel excels at, and that’s ignorance. He is great at ignoring facts, ignoring data…and, most strategically, ignoring us. Indeed, as the leader of the Koop and HERO cabals, he inspired the collective noun “the Wellness Ignorati.” He knows better than to debate us, because the Wellness Ignorati always lose debates, even when they break our microphone.
Eureka! Someone who thoughtfully disagrees with me…and has good points!
Usually a tease like that leads to exactly the opposite content, as in Wellness Corporation Solutions Gives Us A Dose of Much-Needed Criticism, which of course turned into the poster child for our observation that “in wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
This is not that situation.
Michael Prager points out on his blog that I overstated the wellness-programs-as-fat-shaming case. Note he doesn’t say I’m wrong, but he does say I overplayed my hand, which I did. Many wellness programs fit my thesis…but some don’t. If a company’s program is all about offers rather than threats, about creating an environment conducive to health improvement instead lecturing people on their weight, about doing wellness for employees instead of to them, and about leaving people alone who don’t want to or can’t lose the weight, then I’m all for it. I should have been clearer about that.
If anyone would like to nominate an employer who has such a program, I would be happy to write it up.
And as you can see, we are also open to criticism of our positions, as long as the person writing the critique has a good point. Naturally, this industry is overflowing with vendors and consultants who probably have never had a good point in their lives…and naturally Wellsteps is leading the way. When we observed that Wellsteps’ most recent outcomes report showed costs going up and down at the same time, here is their (Troy Adams) rebuttal: We are full of “hot air.”
Wellsteps Stumbles Onward: Costs Go Up and Down at the Same Time
As our regular readers know, we have often had a very slight issue with Wellsteps’ math Nothing major. Just the fact that it’s completely made up.
So it’s no surprise that they’re at it again. Before we get to the math they’ve done for the Boise School District to justify costing taxpayers as much as adding a number of extra teachers, there is another little tidbit. They decided to use the classic fallacy of listing the improvements in the highest-risk sliver only –“those with the worst health behaviors.” These “improvements” of course, omit dropouts, and — more importantly — the deterioration in risk factors among the overwhelming majority, the ones who didn’t have the “worst health behaviors” to begin with. As the paper says: “There was consistent risk reduction among those who had the unhealthiest numbers at baseline.”
It’s not just us (and common sense) saying that. Dee Edington’s “natural flow of risk” model showed that the cohort with the worst health risk behaviors always improves, even in the absence of a program. (In this version below, Dee circled the low-risk bucket to make a different point. The point for Wellsteps is that a very significant portion of the 4691 initially high-risk people decline on their own, and are replaced by others whose risk is increasing. Wellsteps isn’t showing us the replacement people, just the cohort that declined on its own.)
There is a bit of irony in that this Wellsteps White Paper cites him several times…but somehow “forgot” to take account of Dr. Edington’s most important finding, which coincidentally disqualifies their own.
Saving the best for last, Wellsteps once again demonstrates our mantra from Surviving Workplace Wellness: “In wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
On one page, they show a declining overall cost trend by roughly 15% since the start of the Wellsteps program:
Now, compare that chart of the “actual” cost decrease among the entire population (participants + nonparticipants) since 2011 (“Wellsteps Begins”) to the chart below of cost/person, which shows a dramatic cost increase over the 2011-2013 period among the entire population (participants + non-participants):*
So which is it? Did overall population costs go up or down? Even using wellness math, which Wellsteps excels at, overall population costs can’t have both gone up and gone down at the same time.
There are four possible explanations for this, all of which are plausible given Wellsteps modus operandi:
(1) They are stupid;
(2) They are lying;
(3) Their program is so unappealing that employees are switching to their spouses’ coverage simply to avoid it;
(4) The number of employees in the school district declined, making it possible for total costs to decline even as costs/employee jumped. However, even the most dishonest wellness vendor wouldn’t claim credit for that, and even the most gullible customer wouldn’t let them if they did.
One explanation we can rule out: Wellsteps is doing a great job and telling the truth about it. But anyone who knows this outfit could have ruled out that possibility before we even posted this.
As of this writing, Wellsteps has now “rebutted” these findings. They say these dueling trendlines are “rock solid” and that we are full of “hot air.”
(Postscript: In 2014, for some undisclosed reason, non-participants costs dropped almost 40% while participant costs increased. No one has any idea why, and whatever the reason is has nothing to do with wellness. Total costs were still up from the start of the program.)
*Wellsteps didn’t mention the participation rate, so we are inferring a participation rate to the vector of this arrow based on them saying 60% were overweight of 3269 employees, but the number of overweight people listed in their report as participants is 1421.