Consequences of Weight Stigma in Employment: Carrie Arnold

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

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Carrie Arnold is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. She is in recovery after a decade-plus struggle with anorexia, and she blogs about the latest eating disorder science at EDBites.com. When she’s not writing, she enjoys coffee, crochet, cycling, reading, and annoying her cat.

Caught in the Workplace Wellness Crossfire

Returning to work after a six week hiatus is generally awkward. When the hiatus is due to a life-threatening eating disorder and a suicide attempt, it’s even more awkward. But when you arrive back at the office carrying ten freshly minted extra pounds and walk straight into a workplace weight loss contest, awkwardness doesn’t even come close to describing it.

As I opened the front doors of the county health department where I worked, I was greeted by signs plastered all over every available vertical surface saying “Nothing tastes like skinny feels.” What fresh hell was this?

I convinced myself it was some kind of sick joke until I checked my email. After six weeks with nary a click of the delete button, I had steeled myself for plenty of spam and the details of pointless meetings. True, those messages existed in spades. But when at least one in three messages was encouraging everyone to join one of the office-wide “teams” to compete in the Biggest Loser at Work, I formally lost my shit.

To calm my nerves, I walked to the break room to grab a cup of coffee. This was a mistake. On the back wall was a giant piece of poster-board displaying the amount of weight everyone had lost thus far.

I fled to my car and frantically phoned my therapist. “You aren’t going to believe this!” I snapped a few photos of the signs and forwarded some of the email messages. “I told you- I’m not making this up.”

I felt like I had descended into some sort of twisted anorexic hell, where all the negative chatter I had in my head—chatter that I had spent most of the last decade trying to silence—was now writ large for everyone to see. Also, did I mention the weight I had gained? I was torn between feeling vindicated that my weight was clearly too excessive since everyone was encouraged to join the contest and feeling like the world had formally fucked me over at last.

I spent the rest of the morning locked in the bathroom, crying.

Workplace wellness programs are a big business, and more and more companies are participating. Some, like my own Biggest Loser Hell, are informal. Others are much more formal and mandatory. If you don’t participate, you will pay more for health insurance or incur other fines. They’re so common and so well regarded by the Public Health Powers That Be that these workplace wellness programs are a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare).

Ostensibly, they sound positive: helping workers live healthier lives. The problem is that this isn’t how they work. Instead, people are treated to such stimulating lunchtime discussions as “How many servings are in a banana?” (Um, one? It’s a freaking banana) and your colleague telling you she’s so hungry she could eat the ass of a skunk (Yes, Julie, but is a serving one butt cheek or two?). They’re also a chance for businesses and health insurance companies to charge more, and they’re a great way to make people feel like utter crap about themselves.

You can see it if you look more closely at the reasoning behind these programs. People “need help getting motivated” to lose weight. Really? Because the dieters I’ve talked to (and I’ve talked to plenty) are actually quite motivated. And even people who are fat but not actively dieting aren’t unaware that they weigh more than our culture deems acceptable. They’re fat, not stupid or lazy or worthy of weight stigma. Instead, it’s a way to punish people for having the genetic luck to weigh more than our culture and medical establishment deems acceptable.

The richest irony is that these programs don’t work. A report released this summer by the RAND Corporation surveyed programs from over 600 businesses and found that participants in these programs lost an average of one pound over three years and had no change in their cholesterol levels. While they may have saved money in some areas, participants spent more in others. In short, they were a flop.

One outside expert commented that even these modest finds may be an overstatement. From an article in Reuters:

“The strongest predictor of whether someone will lose weight or stop smoking is how motivated they are,” said Al Lewis, founder and president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium International, which helps self-insured employers and state programs reduce healthcare costs. “Since the programs are usually voluntary, the most motivated employees sign up. That makes it impossible to credit the programs with success in smoking cessation or weight loss rather than the employees’ motivation.”

The programs actually reduce healthcare costs by $2.38 per year, yet workers who refuse to participate are penalized thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums—on top of benefit decreases and deducible increases. Nor is there any evidence that people can maintain this weight loss.

I didn’t need a survey to tell me this. Before I left my job at the health department (in large part due to my inability to cope in this environment, although my therapist did convince me to do some fast food challenges by encouraging me to purchase my food and then eat it at my desk to drive everyone bonkers), the organizer was saying how they should do this again the next year. If these programs were going to be effective, there would be no need for planning on next year.

I’m all for promoting health and wellness. But workplace wellness programs as they are currently conceived are not only not working, they are actually causing harm. That doesn’t strike me as a good investment.