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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.
Yes, we know you read this blog for the chuckles. Our most popular and funniest posts are usually the ones showcasing the wellness industry’s race to the bottom. And despite heavy competition, very few industry scams can beat corporate get-thin-quick schemes to that inexplicably coveted nadir:
- Here is Healthywage discussing its newest schemes, like “dieting for dollars” and “paying for pounds.” They also describe how to prevent “fraudulent participants,” a category presumably comprised of zombies and dead voters in Chicago.
- “In Wellness, Stupid is the New Black” shows how Healthywage can’t even read a scale.
- “Shape Up falls down trying to do math for Highmark,” about a weight-loss program so clueless that it got covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Perhaps our favorite is Wellness Corporate Solutions. We won’t ruin the punchline for you.
In sum, we say: “To call corporate crash-dieting contests a joke is an insult to jokes.”
Unfortunately for those of you seeking a few chuckles, this is not that situation.
Quite the contrary, Rebecca Johnson has penned one of the best articles on corporate weight loss programs we’ve ever seen, so we can’t dismiss it with our usual clever if by now overexposed putdowns like: “She should have had this reviewed by a smart person before publishing it,” or “Perhaps her subscription to the internet expired.”
Instead, rarely have we seen more intelligent observations packed into a tighter space, more thoroughly sourced and clearly explained. To summarize:
- Corporate crash-dieting contests are much more likely to harm employees than benefit them;
- They don’t produce an ROI;
- Our mothers were right. Eat a balanced diet. There are more benefits than one would think to not obsessing with what are the “best” and “worst” foods. (Having said that, some people seem to do very well on a low-carb diet. We leave that debate to others and recommend The Big Fat Surprise to readers with an interest in that topic.)
- It is better to be fit and fat (“health at every size”) than to yo-yo diet, for sure.
She goes on to explain her particular approach to mindful eating. I myself have no expertise in that area so I can’t critique the specifics, except to say that Healthywages, ShapeUp (now Virgin Pulse), and Wellness Corporate Solutions should definitely find a smart person to explain this approach to them, even if it means having to pay for an internet connection.
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.”
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.”
In the spirit of Festivus, we reprise four of the funniest vendors we’ve highlighted in 2015 that you might have overlooked. In more ways than one, these vendors didn’t get as many hits as they deserved:
- Vivify Brings Incompetence to Life.
- Keas Meets Lake Wobegone: All Employees Are Above Average (in Stress)
- Star Wellness Illuminates the Health Hazards of Wellness
and just to be fair and balanced…
Seasons Greetings from all (both) of us here at They Said What?
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.
Oh, when bad things happen to good bloggers…
Shame on us! Here’s what Wellness Corporate Solutions had to say about our observations of the wellness industry:
And, in all fairness, when we went to the Wellness Corporate Solutions website, we felt quite chastened. Their website was a breath of fresh air, taking the rest of the industry to task for expecting “instant cost savings,” noting that a “focus on ROI is short-sighted.”
Further, they are totally opposed to wacky crash diets, of the type that 8-week weight loss “challenges” inspire, that cause abnormally large weight swings As most people know by now, those may be harmful and are of course ineffective at long-term weight control. The weight is likely to be regained and then some. Plus contestants often binge before the initial weigh-ins to maximize contest weight loss. That’s why Wellness Corporate Solutions quite appropriately says “stop dieting,” and “avoid making unreasonable weight loss goals.” And “banish weight-obsessive thoughts.”
We were also thrilled to see that they “respect and appreciate size diversity” because “size prejudice hurts us all.”
Finally, a company that has done enough research to realize that you can’t save money instantly by getting employees to crash-diet for 8 weeks! How exciting is that – we discovered a wellness vendor with access to Google!
Unfortunately, perhaps along the way someone at Corporate Wellness Solutions must have failed to “respect and appreciate the size diversity” of a certain Kim Jung Un, because the North Koreans appear to have hacked into their website and announced: a program that saves money instantly by getting employees to crash-diet for 8 weeks.
Naturally, this being a wellness vendor, the savings are made up. If 20% of your employees achieve a “healthy” BMI (a statement which by itself is open to a great deal of debate, since recent research overwhelmingly says it’s better to be fit and fat than to lose weight and not keep it off), for a company to reduce its total cost by 20% means that the costs for each employee who lost the weight would have to fall 100%.
And naturally, being a wellness vendor, they don’t stop there. It’s part of wellness vendor DNA to ignore US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations, while saying they abide by them. In this case, they are doing both thyroid screens (not recommended) and PSA tests (emphatically not recommended).
And, naturally, being a wellness vendor, there is no concept of learning. They did exactly the same thing that ShapeUp, Ron “the Pretzel” Goetzel, Wellsteps and others have done, which is failing to realize that we bite back. Actually, we don’t bite back as much as we allow these geniuses to bite themselves back. The wellness ignorati invariably self-immolate in the attempt to criticize us. Hence our mantra: “In wellness you don’t need to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely need to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
However, there is some good news about Wellness Corporate Solutions: NASA employees don’t need to worry about their job security, because these people are not rocket scientists.