WHEN IT COMES TO HEALTH CARE BENEFITS SAVINGS – THINK LONG TERM, NOT WEIGHT
A Commentary By Ragen Chastain
It’s New Year’s Resolution time. If this year’s resolution involves saving money on employee benefits and helping employees be healthier and more productive then a focus on healthy habits is the key.
It has become increasingly popular to use a “carrot and a stick approach” for benefits cost savings. The goal is encouraging employees to become healthier by making benefits more expensive for those who are perceived as unhealthy using measurements like Body Mass Index, cholesterol, and blood pressure. These programs charge more to people who don’t measure up, either by giving discounts to employees who who are perceived as healthy (carrot), or penalizing those perceived as less healthy (stick).
As a former CEO and Operations Consultant, I get that this looks attractive from a cost savings perspective, but I also know better than to buy into the latest thing without doing my research. It turns out, in the long term, these programs are most likely to leave employees less healthy, less productive and cost much more. The best chance for happy, healthy employees and long term cost savings is to encourage healthy habits.
Full disclosure – were I employed by a company using this approach I would be paying higher premiums. Not because I’m not healthy – all of my metabolic health markers are in the exceptional range. And not because I’m not active – I’m a three time National Champion Dancer who can do the splits and leg press almost four times my body weight. But my BMI puts me in the obese category. The problem is that BMI was created to compare relative body size among large populations and we incorrectly use it as measure of individual health. I’m not the only healthy person who would be caught by the use of this poor measuring tool – Arnold Schwarzenneger, Matt LeBlanc and many professional athletes would be paying up with me.
Studies since 1959 have shown that intentional weight loss, whether it’s called a diet, eating plan, or lifestyle change fails 95 percent of the time in the long term. So if employees are encouraged to lose weight, 95 percent of those who try will be heavier with worse metabolic health than they started within a couple of years. Plus, it encourages employees to participate in unhealthy behaviors to “make weight” for the annual evaluation which can lead to health dangers including weight cycling (yo-yo dieting) and even eating disorders. In what other area of business would we look at these numbers and decide to move forward?
Organizations including the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Obesity Action Coalition and National Women’s Law Association have come out against these programs because of legal issues. Employees are starting to challenge these programs using the Americans with Disabilities Act because blood pressure, cholesterol and body size can be caused by genetics or diseases over which employees have no control. They are also suing employers who partner with programs like Weight Watchers that have been successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive trade practices. It’s going to get messy and expensive and nobody wants a piece of that action, especially considering there are much better, more cost effective ways to increase health and save money.
Evidence strongly suggests that focusing on fitness rather than weight is the best chance for long-term health. Researchers have found that fitness trumps fatness and just about everything else. Encouraging healthy behaviors without focusing on weight is the only thing that’s been shown to produce short and long term success in creating healthier employees. What can be done for workplace health?
- Hold a beginning of the year meeting and announce the company’s commitment to employee health at every size and announce the options being implemented.
- Research shows 30 minutes of walking, five days a week, creates massive health benefits. Start walking groups after lunch to help employees get their 30 minutes and beat the 2 p.m. slump.
- Setting goals around fitness rather than weight loss means employees succeed early and often and are more likely to stick to their fitness program. Create office contests based on fitness goals rather than weight loss.
- Bring people into a conference room to teach dance, pilates, yoga, or martial arts for the hour before and/or after work – employees get healthier and miss the rush hour.
- Provide “lunch and learns” focusing on the benefits of healthy behaviors instead of on losing weight.
People only take care of their bodies if they believe those bodies are worthy of care; by providing opportunities for healthy behavior, a truly healthy workplace is on its way.
Ragen Chastain, a retired Operations Consultant and Corporate CEO, is based in Austin. She is now a nationally recognized speaker and writer on the topics of self-esteem, body image and Health at Every Size (HAES). Visit www.danceswithfat.org.