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End Hazardous and Intrusive "Workplace Wellness" Programs

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Let's end hazardous and intrusive "workplace wellness" programs

We are asking U.S Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius to hold "workplace wellness" programs accountable to the simple standard of disclosing potential program health hazards to would-be participants, by fining programs that involve potential harms, hazards or invasions of privacy with no offsetting benefit.  Fines collected for programs that fail to disclose these drawbacks would be distributed among victimized employees.  We have many stories of these hazardous or harmful programs, that completely ignore all clinical guidelines for safety and/or standards of privacy or respect for individuals, and we'll start with our own. 

 

Recently, the property managers of a high-rise office building in San Francisco started running a weight-loss campaign called “The Beach Ready Challenge”. The challenge, which began during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, brings The Biggest Loser to the workplace without medical guidance, competent trainers, or psychological support for participants. Potential participants and participants were not told of the risks of rapid weight loss nor were they encouraged to seek medical guidance before beginning such a weight loss regiment.

 

One employee of the high-rise offices questioned the ethics of such a program in the workplace, encouraging more appropriate provisions for wellness programs in the work environment, and was quickly quieted by those running the weight-loss challenge because the program is “fun”; her comments will be taken “into considering when evaluating the programs for next year” but nothing will be done to protect participants and those unwillingly exposed to weight-loss pressure in the workplace this year.

 

When do we stop letting “fun” become more important than the safety of employees? When do we stop letting trendy programs be justification for ignoring risks and dangers to participants?

 

Data gathered regarding weight loss wellness competitions found that people are willing to engage in risky dieting behaviors, such as extreme calorie restriction (800-1200 calories), regardless of incentives offered, indicating that weight-loss competitions are inherently risky for participants. Additionally, data suggested that even though individuals know their ideal body size, predominately underweight, is not the most healthy body size, they still want the underweight body type, and many are willing to engage in extreme dieting behaviors to achieve it.

 

Negligent weight loss programs are not the only problem. We propose that that weight-loss and wellness programs that are (1) out of compliance with the official US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines or (2) generally known to be more likely to harm than benefit participants need to clearly disclose this fact to would-be participants and participants or be fined. According to the book Surviving Workplace Wellness, a partial list of examples of abusive, coercive, counterproductive and unethical wellness program includes:

 

--Nebraska’s, which ignored all age-related screening guidelines by urging all government employees of any age to get potentially hazardous screens for colon cancer, and then lied about the results by claiming they saved 514 lives of people who never had colon cancer in the first place.

 

--Penn State’s, that demanded men disclose whether they examine their testicles and required women to disclose their pregnancy plans, but with no clinical benefit associated with either intrusive question.

 

--CVS’s, that force employees (by threat of $600 fines) to get blood taken every year to test for cholesterol, even though guidelines recommending screening for cholesterol only every five years, due to the likelihood of false positives and overtreatment.

 

--Aetna’s, that urge some employees to take obesity drugs that have been singled out for criticism by the Journal of the American Medical Association without disclosing that side deals have been made with the drugs’ manufacturers.

 

--Boston Properties’ weight loss challenge, that offered extreme incentives for rapid weight loss without disclosing the dangers of rapid weight loss or asking participants to seek medical guidance before participating.

 

Programs such as these that take advantage of employee’s insecurities, invade their privacy unnecessarily, and/or risk the physical and mental health of participants are not only dangerous but unethical, as well. Any program that isolates, marginalizes, or unfairly targets employees through coercion and shaming is unacceptable. Unfortunately, because these wellness programs and weight loss competitions are trendy, the realities of the risks associated are often overlooked. Despite best intentions for health and wellness, programs that risk employee’s health have to change!

 

Sign below if you feel:

 

(1) Any programs NOT in accordance with US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines must disclose both potential hazards and side deals with vendors and drug companies to employees AND allow employees the chance to "opt out" of such programs but keep their incentive or avoid their penalty;

(2) Employers, vendors and brokers that fail to disclose these hazards must be fined, and the collected fines returned to employees in that workplace who as a group are victimized by these programs

(3) Wellness programs may only demean employees and/or invade their privacy if there is a compelling clinical benefit established in the medical literature

 

We feel that the simple requirement of disclosure, with the threat of fines, will put the "well" back in wellness, and spur corporations to make these programs much more attractive to employees.  If not, employees will at least get to automatically earn their incentive, avoid any penalty, and share in the collected fines.



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