With the growth in corporate wellness initiatives in the U.S. — encouraged by the Affordable Care Act’s tax incentives, of course — the focus in the workplace is often less on wellness (which is hard to define) and more on fat.
The most common approach to eradicating fat is the weight-loss challenge. Commonly eight weeks long, these contests feature prizes for winners who volunteer to participate in weigh-ins, public weight charting, exercise rituals, calorie tracking, and the mind games that accompany any competition of this kind.
These events encourage quick weight loss using fad diets that never work in the long term but may do greater damage psychologically.
“Many corporate wellness plans lack a holistic approach to wellness and only focus on weight loss,” Dr. Erin Stair of New York City told LifeZette. “In a weight-loss challenge, the person or team losing the most weight in eight weeks wins prizes or rewards. The problem with such a myopic approach is that it encourages a lot of fat-shaming, and here’s the deal: That doesn’t work.”
Major research studies have proven that fat-shaming doesn’t help anyone lose weight — but your employer might not have received the memo.
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Fat-shaming: Maliciously hurting, disgracing or embarrassing other people by calling attention to their weight.
Michele Paiva, a licensed psychotherapist in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, agreed. “Contests like this connect your health or weight to your personal or professional value, and that is incredibly unhealthy,” she said.
In a four-year study at Florida State University’s College of Medicine, participants who experienced weight discrimination and who were not obese at the beginning of the study were 2.5 times more likely to be obese at the end of the four years.
A study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity concluded that stigmatization and shame about weight resulted in more weight as well as unhealthy eating patterns, binging, and psychological problems.
With stress-related absenteeism at an all-time high in corporate life, fat-shaming employees about their weight, especially when eating is a major way people cope with stress, appears to be doubly damning for workers.
“Disordered eating and body image, as well as any of the emotional or mental challenges a person could have, permanent or temporary, are often not visible,” Paiva explained. “Even people who seem ‘fit’ might be in disordered eating struggles. Add social networking to the contests, and the shame factor is incredibly high. No one wins when there is judging and competition among employees.”
Stair believes many companies are responsible for aiding and abetting the shame.
“Fat-shaming is not a new phenomenon,” she told LifeZette. “It’s safe to say that if fat-shaming worked, there would be no fat people, and yet our obesity rates are higher than ever. So anyone who fat-shames is just wasting time being an obnoxious bully. An employer who encourages fat-shaming is encouraging bullying. Period.”
The toxic nature of a competition is exacerbated when aggressive personalities get involved.
Lindsay Celedonia witnessed a weight-loss challenge go bad quickly at her job with a landscape company in Denver. New at the job, wanting to be a team player, she joined her company’s challenge.
“A couple of weeks into it, I found out some of the participants cheated,” she told LifeZette. “One guy chugged 2 gallons of water right before the first weigh in. Another had rocks in his pockets. The competition was all about the money and not about wellness.”
After the facts emerged, Caledonia dropped out of the competition. Later she approached the male and female “winners” of the competitions.
“I asked them if they planned to keep off the weight and they both said no. It was all about the money and winning.”
Marla Levy, a registered nurse who runs a wellness program for a company in Madison, Wisconsin, halted weight-loss contests in her workplace.
“We ran them for four years. I took care to do the weigh-ins privately and keep personal information personal. But, year after year, we had the same winners. They were packing the pounds back on every year, so they could win again next January. They were lying and cheating and spending way too much time psyching out their competition in the office, too.”
With wellness industry vendors and consultants often suggesting the contest approach, employers who push fast weight loss appear to be playing a numbers game — instead of paying attention to people and their talents.
Stair sees the shame of public attention on an employee’s weight backfiring on employers who don’t see the long-term fallout of these types of contests. “Such a culture will only demoralize folks and turn them into unhappy, unproductive employees who end up job surfing,” she said.
Pat Barone, CPCC, BCC, MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating; she helps clients heal their food addictions.