The effects of wellness programs in the workplace are not only likely to be ineffective; they can also exacerbate existing injustices. First, workplace wellness programs that focus on employee weight can directly widen the wealth gap between thin and fat people. Although the numbers vary, studies have repeatedly found deep differences in earnings between fat and thin workers. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks, Latinos, and low-income Americans are among the most likely to be fat, which means programs like this can disproportionately affect communities that are already marginalized. In a 2021 article by the Society for Human Resource Management, Soeren Mattke, MD, D.Sc., physician, professor of economics, and director of the Center for Improving Chronic Illness Care at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles said: Unhealthy Lifestyle and poor health more common in the lower socioeconomic classes, such incentives, especially if they go beyond symbolic amounts, shift the costs to the most vulnerable workers. And that is not responsible administration. “
Workplace wellness programs can also fuel workplace stigma and lead to increased hostility towards fat workers. Research shows that even limited exposure to news portraying obesity as a public health or personal responsibility issue can directly reinforce prejudice against fat people. Weight-centered wellness programs in the workplace seem to be built around the idea that weight loss is not only possible; it is the employee’s responsibility to his colleagues and the employer. This will likely increase the bias and bigotry against obesity in the workplace – which, in turn, makes the simple act of going to work a stigma for many fat people.
For those with eating disorders, workplace wellness programs can turn work into a minefield. Workplace wellness programs don’t just normalize in-depth dieting conversations; they often demand and celebrate it. While these conversations are frustrating for people with restrictive eating disorders, they can disrupt months or even years of recovery. And for many, relapse can mean the difference between life and death. People with eating disorders shouldn’t have to choose between relapse and paycheck. But weight-centered wellness programs in the workplace promote a nutritionally focused work environment that too often leaves workers with eating disorders behind to do just that.
Even programs that do not focus explicitly on weight but instead focus on activity levels, biometric screenings, or other measures can lead to eating disorders, excessive exercise (sometimes referred to as “exercise addiction”), and other dysfunctional eating and exercise behaviors . And programs that offer financial or health incentives to achieve biometric goals tend to systematically disadvantage people who are already disabled or chronically ill. For example, people with advanced diabetes may not be able to meet a blood sugar target that is intended for non-diabetics. Workplace wellness programs that focus on step counting usually exclude those who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs or walking aids. Adhering them to the standards of the non-disabled does not help their health – it ignores their disability.
But even without this specific pressure on employees, wellness programs in the workplace simply do not conceptually hold up. They often ask employees to achieve and maintain a BMI of “healthy weight” – something very fat women have a 0.8% chance of achieving in our lives. Overwhelming evidence suggests that nonsurgical attempts at weight loss just don’t work, whether we call them diets, lifestyle changes, or cleansing. Workplace wellness programs require employees to do something that science just doesn’t know how to do: maintain long-term, severe weight loss. Which means that many programs functionally simply reward those who were already thin and punish and scapegoat already fat workers.
Ultimately, many of these workplace wellness programs aim to control individual behavior in the interests of the employee’s health, but only to the extent that it benefits the employer financially. As altruistic as they may seem, these types of workplace wellness programs often end up in a clever attempt to undercut employer-provided health care and cut costs – even if they harm the health of workers in the process.
Life is tough enough for workers of all kinds. Weight-focused workplace wellness programs could affect employees’ mental health in the short term, physical health in the long term, and pay in the near future. When we return to personal work, we make the decision to lower the stigma and increase justice. Let’s leave workplace wellness programs in the past where they belong.