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Avoiding Pitfalls of Corporate Weight-Loss Programs

Amid the proliferation of corporate weight-loss efforts, some researchers worry that well-intentioned initiatives can risk employee backlash. Sprint Nextel and O'Neal Steel leaders describe how they strive to marry motivation and results.

Sprint Nextel Corp.‘s nationwide fitness challenge racked up significant participation and poundage in 2011.

Initially 40 percent of the telecommunication company’s 39,700 eligible employees joined the 12-week challenge, shedding a combined total of 40,000-plus pounds. They were given access to nutrition and other wellness services and their physical activity was tracked—participants burned nearly 22 million exercise minutes and their pedometers approached 5 billion steps.

Best of all, the average weight loss—eight pounds for the nearly 6,300 employees who completed all 12 weeks—moved some workers down the weight staircase, from obese to overweight, or from overweight to normal weight, says Collier Case, Sprint Nextel’s director of health and productivity. The Overland Park, Kansas-based company estimated $1.13 million in annual savings, primarily related to weight loss.

“Health care costs are just one of our concerns,” Case says. “Our other concern is making sure that people are strong and feel vibrant and have the energy to perform, day in and day out on their jobs.”

It’s no surprise that weight loss initiatives such as Sprint’s are proliferating, as studies continue to highlight the cost of heavy employees to the corporate bottom line. But some researchers who study weight and related stigma issues question if well-intentioned employers might be venturing into risky territory. Depending upon how these programs are designed, they can potentially jeopardize better health, by heightening weight-linked pressures that already exist in the workplace, they say.

Extensive research shows that it’s very difficult, once weight is gained, to both lose and keep off pounds, says Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “There is no magic pill, there is no magic program,” she says.

“And we know from a number of studies that when people feel shamed or are made to feel stigmatized about their weight, they actually engage in unhealthy behaviors that reinforce obesity,” she said, ticking off binge eating as one example.

Obese adults can be costly, racking up an average health bill that runs even higher than for smokers, according to a study published in March in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The researchers found that obese adults cost $1,850 more annually than normal-weight individuals, according to the findings, based on seven years of data from more than 30,000 Mayo Clinic employees and retirees. By comparison, smoking employees averaged $1,274 more in annual health costs compared with non-smokers.

But in combating these trends, when do corporate wellness initiatives cross the line from motivation to stigmatization? Overweight employees already are 12 times more likely to report weight-related discrimination, and obese employees are 37 times more likely compared with their normal weight counterparts, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

By broadcasting the health costs of obesity, during benefits and other presentations, employers might further amplify those workplace dynamics, even creating stress among fellow employees, says Mark Roehling, one of the study’s authors and a professor of human resource management at Michigan State University. “The risk is that you are promoting looking at overweight people as someone who is costing your company or you directly,” he says.

In Donna Cornwell’s experience, though, employees are seeking out assistance. “They say, `Help us lose weight.’ says Cornwell, corporate human resources manager at O’Neal Steel Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama.

And the company has tried, through various short-term fitness or weight loss efforts. But in 2011, leaders at O’Neal Steel and its affiliates, which employ about 3,000 U.S. workers, decided to develop a more long-term wellness approach by teaming up with Alabama dietitian and consultant Rebecca Kelly.

The program involves taking annual health measurements, including weight, and then pairing employees with a health coach every three months. The coaches can then revisit the health goals and provide encouragement and ideas for the next three months, Cornwell says. “I just think there is just a different level of accountability there that helps keep the employee on track.”

Team-based initiatives like Sprint’s are another common employer approach, but can present a bit of a mixed bag, says Kelly, who also directs health promotion and wellness at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The advantages are significant, as the teams do promote accountability, thus encouraging more employees to join and stick with their goals, she says. “If you know you’re meeting someone [to exercise], you’re not going to push the snooze button.” Still, some employees can feel unduly pressured to join, or to reach a particular fitness goal, she says.

At Sprint, where teams could run as large as 11 employees, a few corporate emails kicked off the challenge, Case says. “It was really up to employees to recruit their peers to participate.”

John Alexander, then a 40-year-old IT account manager at the time of the 2011 challenge, recalls that he got “some ribbing from my VP.” The vice president suggested that they sign up together.

“It didn’t bother me at all,” says Alexander, who was carrying an extra 80 pounds on his nearly 6-foot-tall frame, and had a family history of heart disease. “I knew in the back of my head that I had to do something.”

Puhl lauds such success stories, but reminds employers that personal willpower is not the sole weight loss driver. Numerous other factors, including an individual’s own biology, access to healthy food, even the physical activity and food promoted at a work site, can play a role, she says. (See box below.)

And feelings of failure can boomerang, Puhl adds, pointing to a study she conducted with Yale colleagues. The research, published 2011 in the journal Obesity, found that overweight women watching a video with weight-stigmatizing images consumed three times as many calories as those watching a video with neutral images.

But Sprint’s Alexander doesn’t recall any negative drag on his effort, instead praising his teammates for supporting each other to keep moving.

By the end of the 2011 challenge, the father of two weighed in 75 pounds lighter, thanks to jogging and an intense low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet. These days he no longer needs a cholesterol medication, his blood pressure drug has been cut to its lowest dose, and Alexander can be found in the wee morning hours training for his first half-marathon.

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.