Weight Bias in the Workplace: CVS Employees Forced to Reveal Weight or Pay Penalty

Posted By Kantorlaw || 26-Mar-2013

CVS Caremark's new employee health policy requires participants to provide their weight, body fat, and glucose levels…or pay the penalty of $50 per month. This coercive strategy forces employees to pay a fee in order to maintain health-related privacy. According to ASDAH (the Association for Size diversity and Health), there are multiple studies suggesting that a focus on weight as a health criterion is often misdirected and harmful.

The weight centered bias in this plan is clear. "Going forward, you'll be expected not just to know your numbers - but also to take action to manage them," the CVS policy states. CVS may intend to create a healthier workplace; however, this intimidating method seems to emphasize weight rather than health. With the spotlight on weight and body fat, this strategy has the potential to cause additional stress and anxiety in the workplace, as well as encourage unhealthy weight loss and dieting.

The pressure to comply is powerful. A CVS Spokesman told NBC News that although there are no penalties based on the results of the screenings, choosing not to provide this information will result in a $600 annual surcharge. Despite the indication that this program is voluntary, smokers are also warned, "You must either be tobacco-free by May 1, 2014, or participate in the WebMD tobacco cessation program."

These invasive requirements are cause for concern. Many CVS employees are reportedly declining to seek treatment for a range of health issues, for fear that this information will not be kept private. CVS's new policy is already back-firing, causing employees to refuse medical treatment and compromise their wellness.

How much further are employers willing to go in order to cut costs? The boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred as the line between privacy and financial bottom-line overlaps. An employer who demands personal health information invades the privacy of the employee. And CVS is not alone. Many other employers are incorporating these philosophies into their insurance policies, encouraging advantages for those who participate in weight loss programs, dieting, and exercise.

Whole Foods developed something known as the "Whole Foods Market experiment," or "Health Starts Here." Employers are introduced to the Four Pillars of Healthy Eating (whole foods, plant-strong foods, healthy fats and nutrient-dense foods), as well as the 28-Day Challenge, which encourages turning the program's suggestions into habits. What incentive do employers have to endorse dieting and weight loss programs? "Healthy people cost less," stated Adam Reiser, the executive director of a company that's been helping Whole Foods administer its program (http://supermarketnews.com/health-amp-wellness/diet-plan-helps-whole-foods-employees).

Beyond insurance, WFM places a huge emphasis on improving health and well-being. This innovative program, based on each team member's degree of wellness, offers additional store discounts beyond the standard 20% that all team members receive. The extra discount is based on meeting certain biometric criteria for cholesterol levels, body mass index, height-to-waist ratio, and blood pressure, along with being nicotine free. There are four additional levels of discounts based on the team member's score, from 22% to 30% (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/01/how_whole_foods_market_innovat.html).

It is important to consider data that wellness programs typically do not share. HAES® (Health At Every Size) reports that weight loss programs are not effective at improving health and often cause harm. Furthermore, the incentive to disclose weight and BMI has the potential for increased dieting, weight cycling, and bullying or shaming in the workplace. Healthy people might cost less, but weight and BMI are not always valid indicators of health.

This extrinsic motivation by employers has the potential to lead to short-term, superficial, and even physically and emotionally harmful effects. These types of "wellness programs" raise concerns of validity. Will these "wellness practices" in the workplace create a foundation that will lead to requiring employees to report other (or all!) medical and mental health conditions? Will these "wellness practices" lead to bullying, shaming, and unhealthy habits in the workplace? Only time will tell!

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