Is Your Wellness Program Causing Employees to Gain Weight?

April 03, 2019

Woman tying her shoe, fitbit around her wrist
Ben Eubanks

In an era of spiraling healthcare costs and unhealthy habits, employers are turning to the employee wellness program to help curb costs and encourage healthier choices. This happens by educating and encouraging workers, but some responsibility also falls on the employer. For instance, don't tell your workers to make smart food choices and then serve fried chicken and pizza in the corporate cafeteria daily.

While it's great to have healthy workers, the impact of wellness programs goes beyond a fitter workforce. A 2012 Rand Health Quarterly report showed that employer healthcare costs are approximately 15 percent lower for active workers compared to inactive ones. For clarity, the Kaiser Family Foundation health insurance premium calculator shows that in 2017, the average premium per employee was approximately $6,000. A 15 percent savings is nearly $1,000 per employee, per year.

However, new research actually shows that employers may have a bigger stake in this than previously believed. A recent Frontiers in Psychology study pointed out that employers must be careful about their approach to communications and wellness or they risk negative consequences.

New Research Shows Surprising Insights on Obesity in the Workplace

In almost every employee wellness program, there is a balance between employee education and choice, and employer support and encouragement. Encouraging participants to better their health through smart eating and exercise choices is a positive element, but when all of the pressure falls on the employee, the results can backfire. Results highlighted in Frontiers in Psychology show that overemphasizing the individual's responsibility in a wellness program can lead to weight gain and obesity discrimination.

The researchers performed several experiments, such as asking participants to comment on characteristics of obese individuals. The negative commentary actually increased after the participants had been "confronted with concepts from an employee-focused program."

Perhaps even more alarmingly, the study found that when obese workers felt more responsible for their weight because of the thrust of employee-focused wellness programs, they also felt they had less control over the results. This combination led to several key contributors to obesity in the workplace: greater stress, weight gain and decreased self-control.

Balancing Personal and Corporate Responsibility

In the end, there is a need for individual responsibility. Workers can't simply expect their employer to "make" them more healthy. However, there needs to be a balance. Employers should take some responsibility for offering healthy choices, and employees should take advantage of those choices to support healthier lifestyles overall.

Some examples of healthy choices an employer can offer:

  • Standing desks
  • Healthy food in the cafeteria or break room
  • Support walking meetings, where appropriate

By offering options that workers can take advantage of, versus offering conflicting options and putting all the burden on the shoulders of the individual employee, employers can create an environment where everyone makes better, more healthy choices. As the research shows, this is more than just creating a fitter work population; it also has the potential to impact the bottom line in a big way.

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