Corporate Obesity Consciousness

Cubicle Life

Yesterday’s subject was the decreasing tolerance shown by companies for risky health practices among their employees. For her report for CNN, Katherine Reynolds Lewis consulted several experts, including Jim Winkler of the consultancy firm AON Hewitt. His job is to help human resources departments figure out who they should hire and how to keep employees compliant with corporate policy. This is how she capsulized his message:

Eight primary risks can drive up health care costs and lead to diseases: smoking, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol use, lack of preventive screenings, patient non-compliance, inadequate sleep, and poor stress management. Rather than tackle all eight at once, an employer should assess where the greatest risks and costs exist among their employees and go from there.

Cigarette smoking was an obvious problem to start with for most companies. It’s considered okay to penalize people who smoke, because they are making a choice and could theoretically stop smoking, even if the effort is difficult and expensive. In the eyes of many people, being a smoker and being overweight are equated, because both are presumably under the person’s control.

Being obese is different, though. For one thing, obesity can result from a number of conditions other than overindulgence in food. For another, the standard Body Mass Index measurement system is not an infallible indicator of medically dangerous excess poundage. And while many people have quit smoking for good, long-term studies of weight loss show that weight returns in many cases. Apparently, getting over food addiction is harder than getting over nicotine addiction. Keep in mind that, according to many people who are in a position to know, nicotine is a drug more difficult than heroin to kick.

Make Weight Loss a Game

Companies that try to incentivize healthy behaviors may find the rewards they offer are not quite up to the task. Threats and penalties can incite a spirit of resentment that sours employee-management relations. A company called Keas popularized the idea of “a fun and social rewards-based approach that combines games, achievable goals, healthy habit building, and small coworker teams that support health goals.” Lewis notes:

A case study Keas conducted at a Florida hospital found that 46% of employee participants improved their fresh produce intake and exercise, 16% improved their stress level, and 30% lost a modest amount of weight.

For a while there it looked as if they were onto something. But that short description should send up red flags. For any case study to depend on self-reporting is a built-in liability. Maybe 46% of the participating workers did eat more fresh produce and exercise more often, or maybe they were just being polite, giving answers that would satisfy their bosses’ expectations. Self-evaluated stress levels are a tricky kind of data, and what exactly is “a modest amount of weight”? Besides, employees soon lost interest in the gimmicky approach, and gamification was out. Today, the website of Keas, an “integrated benefits solution for self-insured employers,” has a very staid appearance.

Lewis also describes the Global Corporate Challenge,  participated in by such behemoth companies as Rolls Royce and Warner Brothers:

Teams of employees compete in their virtual progress walking around the world… At the end of previous years’ challenges, participants lost an average of 9.9 pounds; 66% reported decreased stress; and of those with high-risk blood pressure, 54% had reached low-risk levels.

Results from this program sound more impressive, with the precise figure of 9.9 pounds and a measurable factor like blood pressure in the statistical mix. Even though a person’s level of mental and emotional stress can only be self-reported, still 66% attainment of stress reduction is a respectably high number. The team approach is meant to give each person the chance to achieve her or his “personal best,” and also to encourage “friendly competition and accountability to their colleagues.” It is not too late for a company to register for this year’s GCC. The website says:

For a period of 100 days starting on 27 May 2015, hundreds of thousands of employees around the world will compete in teams of seven as the GCC takes them on a journey that will increase their physical activity levels and improve their diet and the quality of their sleep.

Beyond the 100 days, the GCC provides a 12-month platform to ensure that learning and positive habit formation continues throughout the year.

For more about how businesses are working to cut costs by encouraging employee health, stay tuned.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?,” CNN.com, 04/15/13
Source: “Program Overview,” GetTheWorldMoving.com, 2015
Image by herval

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