The Wall Street Journal recently reported on employers’ increasingly aggressive efforts to get workers to lose weight, igniting the inevitable social media hullabaloo from pro- and anti-wellness pundits. The article featured a table, Obesity by Occupation, which reported the prevalence of obesity in 10 categories of occupations (ranging from 40.7% for police, firefighters, and security guards, to 14.2% for economists, scientists, and psychologists). But the newspaper and the pundits missed the scoop.
When the reporters discovered the obesity-per-occupation stats in a study published earlier in the year, they glossed over the most important findings. The study, Prevalence of Obesity Among U.S. Workers and Associations with Occupational Factors — published in the American Journal of Preventive Health (AJPH) — wasn’t just about job type. It was about the conditions of work and the work environment.
The study found a significant link between obesity and
- Long work hours — more than 40 hours in a week
- Hostile work environments (think bullying and harassment)
An association between job insecurity and obesity also was identified, but the statistical significance of this relationship withered when the data was adjusted for the confounding effect of health behaviors.
We’ll delve into long work hours, hostile work environments, job insecurity and more in future Health Shifting posts. For now, the focus of the WSJ article provides a prime example of our collective blindspot for the true levers of employee wellbeing.
The WSJ article focused on corporate weight management programs, including the trendy use of step-counting gizmos and apps, with some lip service to weight loss drugs and bariatric surgery. (Google “Memo to Staff: Time to Lose a Few Pounds” to find the full text, which otherwise is accessible only to WSJ subscribers)
But, based on their findings, the researchers who conducted the study cited in the article, all from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), had called for something quite different:
Public health professionals and employers should consider workplace interventions aimed at reducing obesity that take organization-level factors, such as scheduling and prevention of workplace hostility, into account…
They went on to advocate for integration of organizational approaches with more conventional methods — specifically, diet and exercise.
Diet and exercise may very well be important personal levers of health, but their track record is dismal and employers don’t control them. The NIOSH study by no means made an ironclad case, but it was a step in the right direction: Employers stand a better chance of having a positive impact on employee health if they pull the levers they do control — like job schedules and work environment. They need to change the work — not the worker.