Don’t start the work New Year by sponsoring a weight loss contest.

Weights, a tape measure, fruit, and a scale — all things commonly associated with New Year’s resolutions
A list of things that might sound OK on the surface but don’t stand up to any level of introspection of others’ lived experiences

Almost 1/3 of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. A staggering number of the resolutions made by people are related to weight loss (37 %), exercising (50 %), and eating healthier (43%).

And that’s fine when the New Year’s resolution can be made with the extent of its privacy completely controlled by the person making the resolution.

But bringing New Year’s resolutions into the workplace as a group event as a “morale builder” is a terrible idea, and may backfire. Making it a contest is even worse. Food is a surprisingly unsafe work subject because:

  1. There are numerous cultural traditions around food — what might be great for one group might be banned by another.
  2. 9 % of the American population will have disordered eating at some point in time in their lives.

Why are work-based weight loss or healthy eating programs a problem?

The problem isn’t weight loss or healthy eating ideas being implemented at work, per se. The devil is always in the details — in this case, how the ideas are implemented.

If the weight loss/exercise/healthy eating program is sponsored by an executive in the management chain of the participants:

  • Individuals may feel under undue pressure to participate.
  • Individuals who don’t participate may be perceived as having a disability, and that perception gives them ADA rights even if they aren’t actually disabled.

People who don’t participate regardless of the reason:

  • may perceive they are receiving less “face time” with the sponsoring executive.
  • may perceive they are being viewed less favorably by the executive because of their non-participation.
  • will be excluded from accessing rewards or recognition given to the event “winner”.

Weight loss, exercise, and healthy eating programs, unless specifically crafted to be equal, can discriminate against people with disabilities, women, older individuals, and people of color.

Making the event “voluntary” is nowhere near enough because all of the following are true:

  1. People with pre-existing disordered eating can be triggered by weight loss, exercise, and healthy eating contests.
  2. Women are more likely to be overweight than men.
  3. People who identify as BIPOC are more likely to be overweight.
  4. People over the age of 45 are more likely to be overweight.
  5. Different ethnicities have diverging views on weight. BIPOC-identifying individuals are woefully underrepresented in clinical trials, and weight-loss is no exception.
  6. Some weight issues are actually DUE to a disability, such as taking certain medications that cause weight gain or disabilities like metabolic disorder.
  7. Some weight issues are associated with a disability, such as the connection between poor mental health, the pandemic, and weight gain.
  8. If exercise programs don’t have accessible alternatives, they inherently discriminate by assuming that all people who want to participate can walk or run (the two most common examples).
  9. There are privacy issues in play here. Who has access to the weight numbers or even the fact that you are registered or may have dropped out partway? There are specific regulations about how employers can (and can’t) access people’s personal health information.
  10. To get around the privacy concerns, some contests require that individual participants privately track information via an app or website. However, if the tracking tool doesn’t meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA (and I haven’t seen one yet that does, Peloton was the latest to be sued last month), people who use assistive technology won’t be able to participate.

Alright, I am convinced. What am I allowed to do then?

It’s not all doom and gloom. Start with having a disability/diversity professional review the program under consideration to ensure it doesn’t run afoul of one of the ten speedbumps I identified in the previous sections. In general,

  • Organization-wide programs, such as offering private access to health coaches or discounts if people want to sign up privately for Noom or Weight Watchers, are perfectly fine.
  • Programs that suggest logging the number of minutes of exercise rather than restricting the exercise to a specific type are probably OK. However, you are still going to be leaving some people out, including those with temporary injuries and people with a history of eating disorders compounded by overexercising.
  • Having zoom meetings where people demo how they cook something and share their recipes is also fine. Best practice would be to have a sign-up sheet and not automatically reach out to women to see if they are interested.

Employees have every right to expect that they all receive equal and fair treatment — and that means:

  • non-triggering, accessible alternatives;
  • that use WCAG compliant tools;
  • that don’t discriminate based on an individual’s ability level, ethnicity, age, or gender;
  • that don’t unduly call out one particular group of people for special treatment based on their gender or ethnicity.

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