This month marks the endpoint of many a workplace-sponsored weight loss competition. Twelve weeks seems to be the magic number when it comes to encouraging competitive dieting in the name of health, and such competitions always have to begin in January, to coincide with the national post-holiday shaming season.
For those of you whose workplaces have not adopted “biggest loser” competitions or who have not watched the NBC “reality” show from after which the contests are modeled, let me clue you in: The “winner” is the won who loses the most weight during the span of the contest. How you do it is unimportant. And therein lies the problem with these contests as an encouragement of “workplace wellness”—rapid, unsupervised weight loss is no ticket to health.
I know of one local company where the “biggest loser”—a man who was, by the way, barely ‘overweight’ by BMI standards before the contest started—literally starved himself for the two weeks prior to the final weigh-in so that he could win the cash . How productive do you suppose he was in those two weeks? And how healthy?
It’s no wonder that employers are launching such programs, though. Health insurance premiums continue to climb, and encouraging employee weight loss is often presented as one way of containing costs. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for these kinds of interventions.
Some argue that weight loss contests even present dangers to employers and employees. Employees who choose not to participate—for whatever reason, including not having any actual need to lose weight—can argue that such incentives are discriminatory. Peer pressure can lead to behaviors—like the abovementioned biggest loser’s—that are ultimately counterproductive not only to health but also to morale. Not to mention that anyone recovering from an eating disorder could find a company-wide emphasis on weight loss to be triggering, possibly touching off a relapse of his or her dangerous condition.
To these very serious consequences I’ll add one less grave: People obsessed with dieting become very boring. Forget discussing current events or even the weekend ski conditions: Everyone participating in the contest is going to be discussing their fat grams and how many calories they can burn on the slopes. Not exactly fodder for sparking creativity.
There are ways to encourage employees to be healthier that don’t involve weekly weigh-ins. I heard about one Bozeman company that sponsors gym memberships for its employees—but only pays for those memberships if each employee can show that he or she is actually using it. That makes sense. On-site exercise options are another great helper for busy employees. Having healthy snack options available makes a lot of sense as well, especially because quality foods like nuts, vegetables and fruits provide much better energy for stamina and brainpower than do such office staples as doughnuts. Oh, and don’t forget insurance coverage that encourages preventative health screenings such as well-child visits, mammograms and pap smears, and regular physicals.
Of course, all of those options involve considerably more of an investment in terms of time and money than sponsoring a weight loss contest. On the other hand, they also give everyone an equal chance to be a winner—with no losers in sight.
A version of this column appeared in the March 10th issue of Business to Business.