The Corporate Obesity Monitors

Cubicle PanoramaToday’s kids have a lot to cope with. Just like the members of previous generations, they must achieve academic success and jump through all the other traditional hoops in order to enjoy the independence of having jobs when they grow up. On top of that, the stigma of obesity can prevent an applicant from being hired. Once a person is hired, it’s increasingly likely that the employer will play the role of nanny in a way that may be uncomfortably intrusive.

Childhood Obesity News  has been looking at how companies try to lower health care costs by incentivizing healthful behavior and chastising workers for their unhealthful lifestyles. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, researching a story for CNN, learned:

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.

Kathleen Kingsbury reported for Reuters on the rapid growth, within a few short years, of the penalty model. A 2011 survey done by a human resources firm called Towers Watson revealed that 19 percent of companies already penalized people for bad habits by setting higher deductible thresholds or higher premiums. By 2014, nearly 40 percent of large American companies had adopted the practice.

Kingsbury discovered that employers had become very aggressive about discouraging high cholesterol counts and excess weight. The Obesity Action Coalition learned that 5,000 companies required employees to participate in wellness programs in order to be eligible for the full health benefits package. Of their employees, 67 percent had to meet weight standards. Also, positive reinforcement seemed to have gone out of style. Kingsbury wrote:

Almost 60 percent of these workers received no coverage that paid for fitness training, dietitian counseling, obesity drugs or bariatric surgery to help achieve a body mass index under 25, which is considered healthy.

Conscienhealth, a company located in Pittsburgh, advises employers on obesity programs. Founder Ted Kyle noted that some corporate programs verged on discrimination. Even the most well-intentioned interventions can cause resentment. Kingsbury quoted an interesting example of pushback:

Mark Rothstein, a lawyer and bioethics professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, chooses to pay a higher annual premium rather than complete a health questionnaire for his employer, calling it a “privacy tax.”

Another thing Katherine Reynolds Lewis found was that a workplace wellness program succeeds best in a corporate culture where there is a certain level of trust:

Rewards or penalties around healthy behavior must be given in the context of information, interventions, and programs that make it possible for employees to reach their health goals. Programs that are personalized to the workers’ personalities, health risks, and other variables are more likely to be successful—but are also harder to administer.

That last sentence is where problems lurk that mess up the best efforts made by organizations of all kinds and in all places. Personalized programs always work best, whether in a first-grade classroom with one teacher and two aides for five students, or a corporate gym with a professional trainer available for consultation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coming to a workplace near you: Fines for being fat?,” CNN.com, 04/15/13
Source: “How your company is watching your waistline,” Reuters.com, 11/13/13
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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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