People were watching what I was putting on my buffet plate and this is not just paranoia or a woman wrestling with a serious eating disorder speaking. At breakfast eyes burned into me as the line moved past the yogurt and onto the pastries. The pastries, bursting with sugary goodness, called my name but there was no way I could enjoy even a bite with an attentive audience. Then there was the French fry bar at lunch, oh how I love French fries with toppings like cheese and chili; as if the fries are not unhealthy enough on their own. Alas there was just no way to enjoy grease laden potatoes when everyone anticipated a plate full of fruits and veggies before me.
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a conference for companies looking to improve the health and well being of their employees with a major focus on programs and incentives geared towards physical and mental health. My reasons for attending the conference were quite different then most of the attendees; I was looking to learn what health issues companies were struggling with and what competitors were doing to address them. At any other conference an eye would nary be batted at a person loading their buffet plates and ordering a fourth beer but this was neither the time nor the place to test the limits of my stomach or tolerance; I was now representing my company as an example of our commitment to personal health and wellness.
Referencing the press conference playbooks of fallen sports heroes, I was not looking to be a role model; just looking to play my game. Like those sports heroes caught in scandal I felt any wrong move at snack and meal times and I would bring shame (and therefore less business) to my employer. This is something I have struggled with over the previous year or so and this conference made it all too apparent that moving up in this business meant working hard in the office AND at the gym. A very subtle evolution at work that those not sensitive to the struggles of the overweight would even notice is occurring; to be the face of the organization you must physically portray the mission of the company. Our mission is to improve the quality and affordability of healthcare through providing care and support to people, empowering them to make better decisions about their health and care. Our nurses and coaches touch the lives of millions every year by coaching them to make better personal choices; find who will give them top quality healthcare, determine what is the best course of action for better health outcomes, schedule when and where to see the best doctors and educate callers on how to take better care of themselves whether they are chronically ill or trying to live a healthier lifestyle. Moving up any organizational chart often requires an increased amount of client facing time. As many sales people know there is an intense pressure to look good when in front of clients and this pressure is extra intense when trying to sell health. Our clients are looking to see if we practice what we preach and any indication of an unhealthy lifestyle, like smoking or carrying a few extra pounds, does not align with our mission to promote a culture of health and is ultimately a poor reflection on our commitment to promoting healthier lives.
Executives and benefit coordinators from companies nationwide are seeking ways to decrease their healthcare dollar spend and increase workforce productivity through promoting a healthier workplace. In the past our business worked on helping sick people take better care of themselves but that is only a band-aid which did not help people from becoming sick (read: expensive) in the first place. Our customers are now looking to promote a culture of health to keep people healthy before their healthcare becomes expensive and their productivity decreases due to increased absences and disabilities. Smoking programs aimed at getting people to quit are quite popular with employers and for good reason; according to the Centers for Disease control smokers cost employers and extra $1,623 in medical care. The Center for Health Promotion reports that smokers have a 50% higher absentee rate then non-smokers and are 15% more likely then non-smokers to be out of work on a disability. For those employees who keep on smoking employers are increasingly likely to place an extra insurance premium on them to make up for the costs.
In the world of healthcare the focus on smoking is so 20th century. Those who think that they are immune from pressure to live a healthier lifestyle and lose that extra weight at work are ignoring the similarities between smoking and weight in our culture. The days of smoking being chic and accepted in the workplace and beyond are long gone, replaced by smokers hiding their habit for fear of extra insurance premiums or job loss. It was not long ago (although before my time) where people would sit in a board room with heavy smoke wafting through the air; can you imagine that now? Now it is socially acceptable to attack smoking due to the unarguable health issues associated with it; weight will become the next target.
The stats cannot be refuted; overweight individuals cost and average of $1,400 more a year in healthcare costs then people who are at a healthy weight. Beyond direct healthcare dollars us overweight people (I do fall into that category) miss more work (I wish!) then our thinner counterparts. With more sick days, higher medical claims, more workplace injuries and the risk of weight related chronic diseases it is estimated that a person costs their employer and extra five-dollars per pound overweight each month. With stats like these, the inability to hide a weight problem and the sheer number of people who are deemed overweight (66% of our country) is it easy to see how weight discrimination claims are on the rise. The discrimination is hard to fight; the obese are an unprotected “group.” Only one state, Michigan, the District of Columbia, and a scattering of cities have laws making weight discrimination illegal. Then there is the difference between blatant discrimination, like being fired because you are fat, and the subtle discrimination like receiving lower raises, being passed over for a promotion or new job, or being put into positions with little room for advancement, that are hard to prove. People generally support anti-smoking legislation because of tobacco’s cost to our overall society. When people realize their overweight co-workers are costing the company more money and effecting raises and healthcare premiums will they rebel against the overweight for affecting their personal finances?
The pressure to practice what we preach and become the outward picture of health that aligns with our mission and vision is overwhelming but also motivating. Even as an overweight person I found myself looking around the room at the conference and wondering if I would take a few of the morbidly obese people representing other health and wellness companies seriously; were people looking at me and wondering the same? I was also dumbfounded at the number of executives who did not understand why their wellness campaigns and incentives for smoking cessation and weight loss were not working while they were sucking on a cancer stick and shoving a cookie into their pudgy mouths; ever hear of leading by example? It is sad that this career pressure to be thin is a more effective motivator in losing weight then my health and well being ever was; knowing all I do about healthcare I am still like most Americans and pay more attention to my job then my own health. Beyond just the job pressure to be thin studies that conclude that overweight people earn less over their lifetime due to subtle discrimination, limited advancement opportunities and increased cost of health related issues; weight is bad for your health and wealth. But as the cost of healthcare rises beyond the rate of inflation and contributes to recessionary times the time is not far away where everyone, not just those whose career is in the healthcare field, will feel pressure to eat, or not eat, like their job depended on it. So long as your employer, or the government, is paying towards your healthcare then weight, like smoking, is fair game and no longer a personal lifestyle choice.