Corporations thrive on competition. They use it as a key motivator in business. They also try to instill it in every contestant who may sign up this time of year for a workplace wellness challenge.
But between the whipped-up excitement over losing weight and the potential prizes, the pressure is on, and participants are going to great and often shocking lengths to win.
To get a head start on her competition, Isabelle Hunt (not her real name) of Minneapolis, Minnesota, took some weight loss instruction from her anorexic cousin.
“She outwits her doctor by drinking salt water, wearing layers of clothing, putting rocks in her pockets, wearing hairpieces and heavy shoes, and even taping quarters to her body,” Hunt told LifeZette. “There are lots of girl groups who encourage this stuff. It’s nothing new.”
“Crash-dieting contests are Exhibit A that workplace wellness can be hazardous to your health,” said one wellness expert.
Loading up on carbs, sodium, water, and fiber is what Bill Stewart (not his real name) of Houston, Texas, admits to, right before the first annual weigh-in. He told LifeZette he cheats every year on his company’s weight-loss challenge.
“I can pack on 12 pounds in a few days. Since I’ve just been through the holidays, I’ve always got some extra weight, because I let myself go there, too, getting ready for the contest,” he said.
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Stewart’s motivation? Days off. His company awards bonus personal days to the top three winners.
Watch the Chain Reactions
“Crash-dieting contests are Exhibit A that workplace wellness can be hazardous to your health,” said Al Lewis, CEO of Quizzify, an employee health education company, and author of “Surviving Workplace Wellness.” “The less you value your health, the better your odds of winning.”
When any of us lose weight too quickly, we regain it just as fast, the studies show — a restrictive diet results in an average 108 percent regain. After the “Biggest Loser” research this year revealed practically none of the contestants sustained their competitively lost weight, it should be obvious not to push valued employees into a lose-lose competition.
Any program that encourages or allows heavily restricted food intake may also be setting off dangerous eating disorders. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and ultimately kills 20 percent of sufferers, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Keep Your Best Interests in Mind
Who, then, benefits from any of this? There are people who just want to be healthy and use the competition as motivation to eat healthier and get more exercise.
But it’s definitely a question worth asking for anyone contemplating a new challenge.
In Kansas City, seven employees cheated the city’s wellness program of over $300,000 in gift cards used as fitness incentives. One of the cheaters enrolled a family member and claimed he ran two duathlons, three half-marathons, and four triathlons. He earned a lot of gift cards — until someone realized the phantom marathoner was only three years old.
Companies also win with reduced insurance rates and government tax reductions — and they may keep the money from the insurance rebates earned by participants.
Said Lewis, “They [the companies] think they are ‘creating a culture of wellness’ when, in reality, they are creating a culture of deceit.”
Pat Barone, MCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.