Workplace Weight Loss and Wellness Programs

Employee weight loss programYou are the biggest loser in this office!”

Normally, those are not words that most people want to hear out of their boss’s mouth! Nevertheless, these words are being said in offices all around the country, as businesses implement workplace weight loss programs inspired by the television show The Biggest Loser.

Workplace Wellness Programs have been in vogue now for several years. Companies, motivated by spiraling health care premiums, have looked to these programs as a way to lower the costs of employee benefits.

These programs can range from co-workers agreeing to go on a diet together, to a structured contest implemented by management. While these bring many advantages to the workplace, they have to be balanced with laws that protect employees’ rights.

You have a stake in your employees’ health.

No matter the size of your company, you have a stake in your employees’ health, and good reasons to care about their weight.  According to the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Two-thirds of Americans are overweight.  This not only causes health insurance rates to rise, but also contributes to many chronic health conditions, which results in increased absenteeism, loss of productivity, turnover, increased stress and lowered morale.
  • The CDC estimates obesity costs US companies about $13 billion a year! Even safety on the job and workers compensation are impacted. For example, in 2009, two courts ruled that obese employees who were injured on the job had the right to have their weight loss surgery paid for as a necessary part of their treatment for their injuries.

Workplace weight loss programs and discrimination laws:

As employers consider the type of weight loss program or contest to bring into their office, they must consider laws that protect employees against discrimination.

While obesity itself is not a qualified disability, it may be caused by one. In addition, the EEOC guidelines state that severe obesity (defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm) is an impairment, which may then qualify an individual for some protections.

  • A workplace weight loss program needs to be entirely voluntary for the staff.
  • It  should be structured to accommodate participants who have disabilities, and provide them with the reasonable accommodations they require in order to participate.
  • Most of these successful contests involve rewards, but in order to be nondiscriminatory, those rewards should be available to everyone, not just to those who clearly are overweight.
  • There cannot be any negative ramifications for employees who choose not to participate.
  • Ask employees to seek advice from their doctor before taking part in any strenuous physical exercise.
  •  Have all employees sign a waiver relieving the company of responsibility.

As an example, a company may be better off allowing employees to select their own diet plan from a variety of choices offered, rather than having everyone going on the same diet, which might not work for someone in the office who has a health condition such as diabetes or severe food allergies.  Similarly, exercise options offered to employees during the program would need to accommodate everyone’s needs, so that an employee with restricted mobility could still participate fully.

Don’t violate employee privacy.

The ADA prohibits employers from asking employees about their medical histories or conditions unless it has to do with their job, or is a business necessity.

It does give employers the ability to gather this information if it is part of a voluntary wellness and health screening program. Employers should not gather any medical information that they don’t need, but typically employees will be asked to provide information on their weight, which for most people is sensitive and should be kept confidential.

If employees do reveal medical information that prevents them from participating, it needs to be kept confidential under the requirements of HIPAA and the ADA. Employers can never use this information as the basis for decisions on hiring, firing, or promoting employees.

How healthy is your company’s environment?

Certainly we all know that being overweight is a contributing factor to our rising health care costs. Conducting a weight loss program in the workplace is one way to attack the problem. However, companies can review their own policies and environment to help employees lose weight every day, not just during a contest period.

  • Do you serve muffins or cookies during the staff meetings? How about providing healthy snacks instead?
  • Do you have a vending machine filled with chips, candy bars and soda? Remove it and in its place provide fresh fruit, yogurt, and other good food.
  • If an employee wants to walk on their lunch hour, bike to work, or take a mid-afternoon aerobics class, can you be flexible enough with them to make that work?
  • Does your company’s leadership model the behavior you’d like to see in your employees? If the top management is overweight and eating fast food every day while they work through lunch, it sends a message to their staff that this is what a successful person at the company looks and acts like.

Free resources for creating workplace weight loss & wellness programs:

The good news is that there are some great free resources available to help a company put a program in place that benefits the business and the employees!

  • The Center for Disease Control has multiple worksite programs to promote health. Their website acts as a toolkit to help employers by providing comprehensive information on workplace health and interactive tools and resources to implement a program.
  • Washington State’s Department of Health provides tips on creating a worksite that supports health, as well as links to many other resources. Their site also assists employers with setting up in-house programs that comply with applicable state and federal laws..

Losing to win:

Companies have been looking for ways to cut the fat in their budgets, and most of us are running pretty lean these days. Considering the financial impact of obesity, it’s tempting to encourage our employees to “cut the fat” in order for us to continue to tighten our financial budgets. Doing it the right way will benefit our health, our employees’ health, and the company’s health.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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