Over the past decade or so, there’s been a major boom in “workplace wellness programs” —they’re now implemented in about half of American workplaces. On the face of it, that’s a great thing. But the problem is, these programs aren’t always rooted in true health-promoting behaviors, with most of them based on the assumption that losing weight and moving more are healthy goals for everyone (spoiler: they’re not). It’s worth understanding how problematic these programs can be for employees—especially those vulnerable to eating disorders—and the types of health-positive initiatives that can actually help promote wellness for everyone.
The (many) problems with workplace wellness programs
Some workplace wellness programs may include incentives for behaviors that are universally considered healthy, like quitting smoking, stress reduction, or sleep hygiene guidance. But many, if not most, focus primarily on outdated, inaccurate, and reductive measures of health—most commonly, weight.
In fact, about 17 percent of workplace wellness programs are based solely on weight management, and almost 30 percent are designed to “address physical activity, fitness, or sedentary behavior.” In many instances, businesses big and small have taken it upon themselves to encourage “healthier” habits with explicitly harmful tactics like weight loss competitions, which reward employees who shed the most pounds by whatever means necessary in the shortest length of time.
These types of programs can be seriously triggering for people vulnerable to eating disorders, but they can also be detrimental to anyone. Let’s break down some of the major problems with workplace wellness initiatives promoting weight loss and exercise:
They can encourage disordered behaviors
“I’ve heard of some workplace wellness programs offering money prizes or bonuses for losing X amount of pounds or walking 10,000 steps for X days,” says Equip Registered Dietitian Gabriela Cohen. “I can see many harms to this type of program. Most of the time, intentional weight loss requires restriction which we know increases the risk of disordered eating patterns and eating disorders.”
Cohen explains that these programs risk reinforcing many of the disordered thoughts and beliefs rooted in diet culture that can trigger or exacerbate eating disorders. “It can create the belief that someone needs to change their way of taking care of their body or the way they look,” she says. “This belief in itself can be very triggering to eating disorder behaviors, starting with restriction—and we know that restriction can lead to other behaviors such as binging. Pressure to participate in a certain physical activity or to hit certain numbers can also create a compulsive relationship with exercise. Programs that moralize certain foods or food groups can create orthorexia tendencies, which can evolve into another eating disorder.”
While encouraging employees to eat healthier or be more active may seem innocuous—even admirable—the truth is that fitness, nutrition, and weight are all highly subjective and personal. To truly incentivize employees to make wellness-oriented choices, companies would need to individualize and diversify their health offerings rather than push all employees toward the same arbitrary goal. “How do we know that weight loss is going to produce wellness in every individual employee who is going to participate?” Cohen asks.
They uphold weight bias
Equip Senior Program Development Lead Ally Duvall points out that these types of programs also exacerbate weight discrimination in the workplace, which (with the exception of a few cities) is shockingly legal in 49 states.
“Wellness programming in workplaces often positions disordered behaviors as healthy, while normalizing weight bias,” Duvall says. “The programming focuses on how you can change your body and shift the life you currently have, solidifying the societal messages that thinner is better and more desirable.”
They’re not really about health, after all
First off, most of these programs aren’t designed by doctors or dietitians or anyone else with expertise about health, and there are no rules or standards governing how nutrition or exercise advice is doled out.
Duvall remembers when, growing up, her parents’ company had a wellness program that gave insurance discounts to employees and their family members who participated in a weight loss program. This dynamic perpetuated Duvall’s undiagnosed eating disorder at the time, but in retrospect, she sees the damage it was doing to everyone involved. “Even for someone not struggling with an eating disorder, these programs create financial incentives for folks to move closer toward disordered behaviors and further away from a version of health that’s actually supportive and individualized.”
What companies can do to actually promote health
While there’s no single solution for all workplaces, there are plenty of practical, tangible ways to promote employee well-being without resorting to tired, potentially harmful weight-focused challenges.
“First and foremost, don’t focus on numbers—they create rigidity, and rigidity can become very limiting and anxiety-producing for a lot of individuals,” Cohen says. “I would also stay away from body changes, because we should not be encouraging anyone to change their bodies.”
In terms of what can be helpful to focus on, Duvall suggests a slew of stress-reducing social activities that may actually make a positive impact—a worthy area of attention given that 83% of American workers suffer from work-related stress and 77% have experienced employee burnout “A majority of the wellness programs out there center on weight control or weight loss; we need to fully move away from this arena and focus more on all the other ways folks can best support their brains and bodies, like workshops on burnout,” she says. She also suggests more constructive, morale-building activities, such as social hour, craft hour, and open discussions on important topics (like how to challenge harmful body image ideals!).
Cohen says that in order for corporate settings to foster authentic wellness for every worker, we need a paradigm shift. “Employers need to help redefine what the true definition of wellness is: mental health, social connection, spiritual connection, self care, time off, mindful and joyful movement, seeing food as a source of joy and connection rather than something we must control or restrict,” she says. “For example, a cultural cooking class for team bonding, regular meditations for team members, ‘Bring Your Pet to Work’ day—all of these can increase how well employees feel in their workplace and increase their job satisfaction.”
Ultimately, numbers and metrics are an important part of any successful workplace. But they should be mostly directed toward measuring business KPIs or revenue growth charts. When it comes to the health of employees and cultivating a supportive work environment, focusing on pounds lost or steps taken undermines the goal at hand. By avoiding the weight loss trap and thinking about what true, sustainable health looks like, employers can build workplace wellness programs that actually move the needle toward wellness.