Why Workplace ‘Health’ Programs Claiming to Reduce BMI Are Discriminatory
“At best, [Body Mass Index] is now considered a poor proxy for fat mass and health; whilst at its worst, it can and often is used as a cudgel to ‘fat-shame’ the larger amongst us in society,” Giles Yeo, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, had written last year.
Yet, it appears that Zerodha, a financial services company, recently announced a “fun health program” to encourage health consciousness among its employees — by offering them bonuses in exchange for reducing their BMIs.
Zerodha’s co-founder and CEO, Nithin Kamath, tweeted yesterday, “I know BMI isn’t the best measure to track health & fitness, but it is the easiest way to get started. With health [and] most other things in life, the most important bit is to get started.” However, the initiative might sound noble, but isn’t actually.
The rather toxic program is offering incentives to people for losing weight. Anyone with a BMI of less than 25 will receive half a month’s salary as a bonus. And, if the average BMI of the team plummets below 24 by August, everyone would get another half a month’s salary as yet another bonus.
This sounds too absurd and comical to be true — yet it is. The problem with any such purported health policy is that it makes people, who may not have the socio-economic luxury to lose weight, more prone to discrimination in a society where fat-shaming is already a problem. Moreover, the policy in itself is based on an inaccurate indicator of health.
It’s imperative to debunk what BMI actually tells us. “[BMI] makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle, and fat in the body. But bone is denser than muscle and twice as dense as fat, so a person with strong bones, good muscle tone, and low fat will have a high BMI. Thus, athletes and fit, health-conscious movie stars who work out a lot tend to find themselves classified as overweight or even obese,” explains an article on NPR.
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So, using BMI as a way to encourage people to be “healthy” is not only unscientific, but also promotes a culture of fat-shaming.
A study from 2014 also found that being fat-shamed actually led people to put on more weight; basically, it’s counterproductive. “Shame leads to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can stimulate appetite, and increase [the] risk for depression and anxiety — both of which contribute to unhealthy eating habits,” Leslie Pristas, a bariatric surgeon from the U.S., had explained. In addition, the stigma around weight can also lead to binge-eating in some as a coping mechanism, leading many to develop eating disorders too.
The policy then impinges on good mental health practices. It may serve to make people, who don’t pass the BMI-based cutoffs, feel isolated — and, perhaps, even fat-shamed. According to past research, that itself can put people at a greater risk of depression.
There’s also a core gender component here. “Can’t help point out that as compared to males, females struggle with more health-related concerns that cause fluctuations in their BMI and body weight. This is feeding into the already existing gender bias in workplaces, even if you refuse to see this connection,” Rubina Mulchandani, a clinical researcher who focuses on cardiovascular epidemiology, wrote in a series of tweets criticizing Zerodha’s policy. The program then holds the potential to perpetuate gender biases.
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“This [program] is not incentivizing good health. This is discriminatory, myopic, [and] offensive,” Mulchandani continues.
There’s something so egregious about the company calling this a “fun” activity to encourage health and fitness. As such, the initiative seems like yet another stunt by a company to feign that it cares about the health of its employees through policies that might actively harm them. Perhaps, one alternative here is to actually care about the people instead of just pretending to.
As Mulchandani suggests: “What about encouraging activity breaks in the workplace, having mental health support in place, ensuring a good work-life balance? Real stuff that matters.” Alternatively, the company could also work on a system to provide healthy meals for its employees. Yet, what it has chosen to do is fan the raging, damaging wildfire that fat-phobia is.
Worse still, Kamath wants other organizations to adopt its policy too so they can all “compete” against each other — perhaps, to see who can be the most discriminatory towards their employees or adversely impact their mental health the most.
“Why can’t companies move beyond superficial gestures and lip service when it comes to the health of their employees’ health?” Mulchandani asks. One can only wonder.