The Trouble With Workplace Weight-Loss Challenges

You may remember episodes of "The Biggest Loser" hitting the airwaves in the early 2000s. The show is said to have inspired many group weight-loss endeavors among friends, family, and even co-workers (via The Healthy). Employers looking to increase the health and physical wellbeing of their employees create weight-loss challenges that last for six to eight weeks where groups of people work diligently to shed the pounds for incentives at their place of employment. 

These challenges have the guise of fun and friendly competition, but employers are finding there are more side effects to these challenges than they predicted, per Corporate Wellness. The weight-loss competitions encourage various tactics with the goal of having employees weigh less than they did when they started competing, no matter how they went about this goal. These challenges may be well-intentioned, but there are also dangers lying within these competitions that could trigger negative health effects, which employers cannot later undo. 

The toxic nature of weigh-loss challenges

While these competitions are well-intentioned, lots of harm has come from them. Forbes mentions the toxicity that emerges from competitions of this kind. They explain that this invites a kind of weight-based discrimination where the implication is that your value at work is tied to the pounds on the scale. In addition, it adds stress that is needless and superficial to a workplace. According to Self, the definition of health isn't just the fight to be thin. It's more about the behaviors and habits you create to give your body exercise and nourishment. These are things you can control. Weight, on the other hand, depends on many different factors. The weight-loss challenges can unintentionally send employees into a spiral of unhealthy behaviors.

Along with the negative habits that these competitions initiate, they are known to encourage drastic behaviors that are actually detrimental to your health. The National Institute for Fitness and Sport says that these challenges are based in dysfunction. They promote restrictive eating habits that are not sustainable. This type of hostile environment lays the ground work for damaging participants' relationships with their bodies and food. This can create mental health struggles in the form of disordered eating and shameful feelings about their bodies (via IncentFit).

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

What can employers do?

In order for employers to actually take care of the health of their employees, insurance company Unum says starting with the weight of your workers is the wrong way to go about it. The website explains that providing employees with paid leave and more flexibility is actually more beneficial to workplace health and morale. Self goes on to add that employers can look into team-building activities like group meditation and walking groups. In addition, adding in breaks to the work day and encouraging healthy eating by adding more nutrient-rich foods to diets will improve wellness in the workplace. By creating a culture of care in your workplace and infusing optimism into the office, you'll not only have healthy employees, but you're more likely to have happy ones as well.

While workplace weight-loss challenges may be enshrouded in care, they are a very toxic way to encourage employees to prioritize health. From under-eating to over-exercising, oftentimes the challenges become more about winning in a small chunk of time for the contest and less about health. If employers really want a healthy workplace, they should consider promoting movement, encouraging mental health care, and providing benefits that allow their employees to take care of themselves and their families.