Workplace wellness programs are growing in popularity. About four-fifths of U.S. employers with more than 1,000 employees offer these types of programs, according to a RAND Coporation analysis, which means that improving employee health has become a $6 billion industry.
After all, we spend about two-thirds of our waking hours (which adds up to about one-third of our a lives) at work, and employer health care costs are 15.3 percent lower for physically active workers than inactive ones, according to a 2012 Rand report — so implementing workplace wellness programs makes logical sense. That's why in 2010, the World Health Organization suggested that workplaces form the primary settings for health promotion and, in the last 30 years, there's been a steady increase in wellness programs.
According to the 2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey, 94 percent of large and 63 percent of small employers offered a wellness program targeting a variety of health concerns such as disease prevention, employee wellbeing or lifestyle and health education with the expectation to benefit both employers and employees.
But while workplace wellness programs might sound like a good idea, new research finds that some common workplace health promotion practices can actually take a toll on employees' health and tip the scales against them.
The research collected in the new Frontiers in Psychology study finds that workplace health promotion programs that make employees responsible for their weight can lead to adverse effects including increasing stigmas surrounding weight, which can in turn lead to weight gain and, ultimately, decreased well-being. Here's how these programs, when not thoughtfully and strategically implemented, can be harmful.
1. Increased weight-based discrimination.
"Whilst there are benefits to [employee wellness programs], we propose that the current focus on weight that emphasizes employees' responsibility can inadvertently elicit weight stigma," the report reads, defining weight stigma as the negative attitudes toward a person because of their weight status. "People with overweight or obesity are negatively stereotyped as being weak willed, lazy, unintelligent and gluttonous. Indeed, although a link between prejudice and discrimination is not always evident, negative attitudes toward people with overweight and obesity have been associated with biased treatment."
The researchers warn that negative stereotypes about people with obesity can also lead to discrimination in the workplace.
"Suitability judgements of applicants in the hiring process or employees for promotion are lower for applicants with obesity; people with overweight or obesity, on average, earn less and are more often unemployed," the researchers write. "Further, it has been shown that people with obesity are perceived as possessing less leadership qualities compared to normal weight counterparts. In addition, research has reported that employees with obesity have lower starting salaries, are assessed as being less qualified, and work longer hours than normal weight employees."
According to the research team, programs the put the responsibility on employees to eat healthier (vs. having a cafeteria that sells mostly healthy foods), especially led to increased weight-based discrimination and stigmas. The same couldn't be said for employers that took a share of the responsibility.
And lest it be forgotten, weight isn't always directly correlated to one's health. So employees who may weigh more aren't necessarily more unhealthy (or at all unhealthy) than those who weigh less. But stigmas exist nonetheless.
2. Increased weight gain.
The researchers found that when obese workers were involved in employee health and wellness programs felt even more responsible for their weight, they actually felt that they had even less control over it. In turn, their lack of control lead to increased obesity, exacerbating their health.
"From a motivational perspective, people with obesity are thus likely to be caught in a Catch-22 like situation, which can result in maladaptive responses," the report explains. "After all, insights from learned helplessness theory show that, when people feel responsible for uncontrollable events, this harms their self-esteem and potentially results in diet-breaking behavior and weight gain."
The findings suggest that the mere presence of an employee wellness program in organizations was associated with employees' perceptions that being overweight is more controllable than it actually may be.
"This association was not evident for burnout, and the marginally significant relation between presence of a [program] and controllability of cancer and non-health related events was fully explained by employees' own involvement in implementing a health program; thus, the association between [program] presence and health-related events was unique for weight," the research suggests.
3. Decreased mental wellness.
"Not surprisingly, experiences of weight stigma and discrimination also may have serious adverse effects on mental health, including compromised psychosocial wellbeing, social isolation, healthcare avoidance, binge eating, body-related shame and guilt, and weight gain and development of obesity, which can contribute to sickness absence," the research reports.
"If not implemented carefully, [these programs] might have negative rather than the expected positive effects," the researchers warn.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report,