In part one of our series on physical wellbeing, we discussed the importance of inclusion within wellbeing schemes and the intersection of mental and physical wellbeing. In recent years, it’s become clear that pushing weight loss disguised as ‘wellbeing’ can really do some damage. Let’s recap:
- On average, girls begin dieting at age eight, and 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than considered ‘fat’.
- High numbers of people avoid seeking medical care due to fear of symptoms being ignored and being told they “just need to lose weight”.
- There are several cases of plus size people going undiagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses, after doctors focussed on their weight rather than symptoms. The consequences of this range from losing a lung to delayed treatment and years of life lost.
While employers are not doctors and do not have the same responsibilities, these examples show that pushing weight loss in the name of wellbeing – and thinness in the name of health – can have a detrimental impact on people. Employers have a responsibility when offering wellbeing support or advice to ensure that that advice is stigma-free, accessible and respectful of all bodies and abilities. If we care about our employees enough to implement a wellbeing scheme, then we must make that scheme promote acceptance and health at every size. We cannot aim to improve employees’ physical wellbeing with methods that actively damage their mental wellbeing.
Healthy looks different on everyone
More than 50 years of scientific research proves that humans are genetically predisposed to have different base weights and body shapes. We all have set weight points which our bodies try to maintain, often fighting to counteract diet and exercise. This is why 95% of diets don’t work, because your body is programmed to try and maintain its individual default weight. How hard they fight, and what your ‘set weight’ is, is different from person to person. You could find it impossible to lose or gain weight, or incredibly easy. And your default weight could be 7st, 17st or 27st; everyone is different.
Consider that, if any one method of losing weight actually worked for everyone – no other diets would exist.
Many workplace wellbeing programmes still heavily revolve around physical fitness and weight loss, which – as discussed in part one – excludes a significant number of employees. One particularly damaging aspect of this stance is putting focus and value in BMI. Although BMI is one of the most common evaluators for health, is widely critiqued by scientists and health experts, as it fails to differentiate between body fat and muscle, and simplifies health into an implication that plus size people are inherently unhealthy.
What’s more, the weight brackets used within BMI categorisation are considered to be unfounded and subjective. In fact, in 1997 the U.S. National Institute of Health decided to lower BMI categories for women (despite no evidence in favour of this). This meant that overnight, 39 million people were suddenly classified as overweight. Later, it was revealed that 8/9 of the decision-makers involved had significant financial links to the weight loss industry.
So, when it comes to benchmarking physical wellbeing and setting goals at work, turn away from BMI or stereotypical ‘healthy eating’ and look to personal goal-setting and what healthy looks like for each individual. (More on this later)
Consider those most at risk
In the UK, in order to be diagnosed with anorexia you must have a BMI of 17.5 or below. In a woman of 5ft6, that equates to weighing 7st. For many people, because of their body’s set weight (outlined above), even starvation won’t get them to this weight. In this scenario, people are frequently turned away from getting help simply because they aren’t thin enough. In order to receive medical care, first they must actively get more unwell.
With eating disorders, that means vulnerable people seeking help are told to do exactly what it is that is making them unwell (e.g. eating disordered behaviour such as restrictive eating) to get help at all. Imagine if someone with signs of lung cancer had to smoke more cigarettes and come back when they were ‘ill enough’. The notion would be laughable, if it wasn’t so concerning.
Already, we live in a society where far too often, people are celebrated for doing exactly what is harming them with regards to body image – we say “well done” to people for losing weight, rather than asking why they felt they needed to lose weight; we say “I wish I had that self-control” when people restrict their food intake, rather addressing it as potentially-dangerous behaviour. With employer-sponsored wellbeing schemes, it’s incredibly easy to accidentally push these same messages. It is crucial that employers acknowledge the risk wellbeing initiatives can pose to certain individuals.
“Individuals with a history of addiction or eating disorders may be vulnerable to issues triggered by wellbeing messaging that is focussed on losing weight or ‘getting in shape’. For instance, those with a history of eating disorders may be triggered to relapse if encouraged by their employer and peers to lose weight, scrutinise their diet or increase their exercise level – even if the intention is positive.” – read more in Gamification and Employee Wellbeing
Reframe physical wellbeing
After considering the different effects of wellbeing programmes, it may feel daunting to implement a physical wellbeing initiative in your workplace. But wellbeing, whether mental or physical, can improve your employees’ lives and productivity ten-fold! Before you begin, let’s recap the most important elements to remember when designing your scheme.
Promote health at every size, and raise awareness of eating disorders
We’ve talked about why this is one of the most important aspects of an inclusive and successful wellbeing programme. Place emphasis on the intersection of improving mental and physical wellbeing. Encourage your employees to think critically about how they see themselves, and why – and how their relationship with physical wellbeing may harm/help that. Throughout your communications, use inclusive imagery that showcases healthiness at every size. Advertise finding ways of enjoying movement (versus “losing weight”) or spending time outdoors (versus “exercising more”). Remind employees to focus on wellbeing, not weight loss, and be conscious of eating disorders affecting people of all shapes and sizes.
Celebrate individual goals and hold each other accountable for kindness, not results
When it comes to goal-setting, remember that everyone’s abilities and motivations are different, so their goals should be too. There isn’t a ‘correct’ weight or activity level. Encourage your people to set personal goals based on what they enjoy and what makes them feel good – e.g. “I’d like to spend more time doing yoga because it helps my flexibility and mental health” or “I want to go swimming once a week because I enjoy it” or “Feeling strong boosts my self-esteem, so I want to improve my strength”.
Rather than considering wellbeing as a destination (e.g. losing X amount of weight or running X times a week.) – which can foster unhealthy mental wellbeing – try to cultivate an attitude and environment of ‘do what makes your body feel good, when you can’. Wellbeing is a constant state of being, and should be about how you feel not what you do. Instead of focussing on reaching goals, hold people accountable for being kind to themselves and working on their self-esteem.
Ensure all wellbeing initiatives are optional and accessible
When designing a scheme, include suggestions and statements that show awareness of different abilities and interests; think outside the standard gym membership and ‘healthy eating’. Encourage employees to include sentiments of flexibility and understanding within their wellbeing – remind them that it’s okay to miss a day or stop activities they don’t enjoy, rather than forcing a rigid routine. Be aware of encouraging wellbeing methods that promote competition and comparison; instead encourage participation and incremental progress against personal goals. Remember that people don’t need to be physically active or physically ‘healthy’ to be valid and deserving of respect.
We know now that pushing physical wellbeing via weight loss or exercise programmes simply does not work, and risks damaging your employees’ mental wellbeing more than it will improve their physical wellbeing. Of course, encourage and advertise employee benefits such as gym membership or fitness and nutrition insight – these can be hugely valuable to a lot of people who already have an interest in physical fitness – but focus on movement, enjoyment and overall mental wellbeing.
So, when you’re next proposing physical wellbeing schemes, remember that healthy looks different on everyone, and that people of all body shapes and abilities can be healthy in their own way. Wellbeing is not defined by, and cannot be gauged, from someone’s physical appearance. And what’s more: everyone is deserving of the same respect, value and voice, regardless of their body.