Why employers should ditch ‘biggest loser’ contests

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To call corporate crash-dieting contests a joke would be an insult to jokes. It’s not just that these contests don’t work. It’s that you may be harming your employees – and possibly setting yourself up for a career-ending lawsuit.

The evidence that biggest-loser contests don’t work is overwhelming. First is the exposé in which contestants on the eponymous TV show were monitored closely in the months and years following the televised contests. The results were exactly as obesity specialists would have predicted: most contestants gained most of their weight back. True, these folks were morbidly obese to begin with, but they were also so highly motivated to succeed that they passed an audition that 95% fail. If this cohort can’t succeed, who can?

Now consider another group that should succeed: Employees of a wellness company. In only one case has a wellness company reported results on its own employees (and employees of its parent company). The company showed an increase in body mass index and a deterioration in eating habits. If a wellness company can’t get its own employees to lose weight, who can?

A third group that should succeed would be a company, McKesson, that just won a C. Everett Koop Award for wellness program excellence. Yet, as reported in Employee Benefit News and noted below, McKesson’s employees gained weight. If an award-winning company can’t get employees to lose weight (or reduce their blood sugar), who can?

These examples are the rule, not the exceptions. A carefully designed study in Health Affairs showed that paying people to lose weight — in any form including contests — fails.

And even if some employees did keep some weight off, it won’t affect your company’s financial success.

Possible harms and legal exposure

Pay-for-pounds contests can harm employees as well. They might binge before the first weigh-in and crash-diet right before the follow-ups. No one argues that this “weight-cycling” is healthy. The debate centers around whether it is unhealthy or not.

That means the best-case scenario is that you aren’t harming your employees. If incentives are set too high, or pressure from team members is too great, employees might turn to hazardous and unregulated weight-loss supplements. By definition these can harm people. Worse, the harm is totally foreseeable. That means if an employee does get harmed, your employer can be sued – and will probably lose. That could be a career-ender for you.

Employees may also lose respect for you and your company. They could easily cheat. Drinking a lot of water, filling pockets, wearing heavy clothing – these are all ways to game the system. You want to create a culture of health, but you end up creating a culture of deceit.

And how do thin employees feel about the extra money their larger colleagues have access to?

How about a ‘smartest winner’ contest?

Why not try a contest that rewards intelligence, rather than deceit and bingeing/crash-dieting? A contest that actually helps employees navigate the healthcare system – even navigate your own health or retirement benefits. You’ve seen your participation rates for many of the programs you implement. Perhaps if you offered a multiple-choice health benefit trivia contest where the right answer explains the benefit, you could educate employees … and engage them too. Give out incentives for each correct answer, set up a leaderboard, and reward the “smartest employees.”

In addition to not understanding the health benefit, maybe employees don’t know the difference in co-pays between urgent care and the ER. Or between mail-order and retail pharmacy, or between your on-site clinic and a network physician. You can lecture at them all you want, but putting everything in the form of trivia, and giving out prizes, is much more engaging.

Obviously employees will cheat on this contest too, the way they cheat on crash-dieting contests. The difference is that you want them to cheat. You want them to look up the answers. You would love to give out multiple prizes for perfect scores.

It isn’t just your own health benefit. Employees routinely overuse/misuse healthcare in general because they don’t understand it. Consider the following healthcare trivia question:

The answer is “500 times.” (Actually between about 100 and 1,000 times). When employees demand inappropriate scans, do you think doctors inform them of that little factoid? It is often easier and faster to give employees what they want rather than explain to them why shouldn’t get these things.

Of course you can write these questions and design the app on your own, but (spoiler alert: shameless plug forthcoming) Quizzify is all set up to do this. Doctors at Harvard Medical School review the material and savings are 100% guaranteed.

Here’s another guarantee no biggest-loser vendor can match: Educating your employees won’t harm them.

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Obesity Wellness programs Healthcare costs Healthcare plans Healthcare benefits Benefit communication Employee communications Employee engagement