“Biggest Loser” and Similar Employer Wellness Programs Harm More Than Help

Employer wellness programs targeting employees’ weight control have resulted in no demonstrated positive effect, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Managed Care. Even with the use of financial incentives and penalties, the paper noted that there is no published evidence of savings resulting from long-term weight loss, nor a reduction in inpatient admissions associated with obesity and suggested that employers should abandon their weight control programs.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) has spurred an influx of wellness programs in larger organizations, as the health reform law gives corporations the opportunity to make up to 30 percent of health insurance premiums dependent on participation in a corporate wellness program and/or on achievement of positive health outcomes. The paper notes that smoking and overweight status are the most common targets of corporate wellness programs.

Lack of results

Despite the expected correlation between obesity reduction savings and wellness savings, corporations have with wellness programs are not reaping any benefits. No studies of such programs have documented savings, according to the paper in one case, even in one particular case that experienced a significant reduction in hospital admissions for reasons such as heart attacks. In addition to a lack of financial results, companies with wellness programs also saw a lack of results in weight loss itself. The paper highlighted that the only major population cohort that showed a reduction in obesity was young children. Comparatively, Medicare and Medicaid populations, who often do not have access to wellness programs, are benefitting from declines in wellness-sensitive medical events requiring hospitalization.

More harmful than helpful results

The paper stresses that corporate wellness programs for weight loss should be discontinued, as these and other programs harm morale and corporate culture through surveys, weigh-ins, and screens, which tend to encourage “employee revolts.” Obesity programs also cause health hazards due to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and “biggest loser” contests can humiliate employees and spur unhealthy crash dieting. As an alternative to wellness programs such as these, the paper suggests that employers subsidize healthy food options in workplace cafeterias, reimburse fitness memberships, and allow extra breaks for exercise.