March 4, 2016
Should You Announce How Fat Workers Are?
by Al Lewis
A shockingly serious proposal is being floated that would have companies announce how fat their employees are, how much they drink, etc.
A shockingly serious proposal has been floated to first persuade (and later possibly compel) publicly traded companies to disclose to shareholders quite literally how fat their employees are.
Also, how much they drink, how well they sleep and how stressed and depressed they are.
This proposal, advocating what is known as a fat tax, shouldn’t even merit a discussion among rational businesspeople, and yet here we are, discussing it. Even Harvard Business Review (HBR) is discussing this.
Why? Because the well-financed, well-organized cabal behind this fat tax proposal include corporate names like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Humana, Merck, Novo-Nordisk and Unilever. The leader of this group is a South African insurer called Discovery Health.
If you guessed that any critique written by me would also implicate Ron Goetzel, you would be correct. Despite having now himself admitted that most wellness programs fail, he is the one justifying this entire scheme by claiming that wellness programs increase stock prices — even though they don’t. We’ve already offered a completely transparent analysis to the contrary.
He also made a rookie mistake in his own analysis. The stock prices of companies in his study diverged greatly in both directions from the averages, and he didn’t rebalance existing holdings annually. It’s simple compounding arithmetic. Suppose the stock market rises X% a year. If every stock in your portfolio increases at that rate, you’ll match the averages. However, if half your stocks increase 2X% a year while the other half don’t appreciate at all, and you don’t rebalance, you’ll beat the averages. Simply by doing nothing.
Goetzel’s study appeared right before the fat tax proposal was floated at Davos. No coincidence here — Discovery Health (the sponsor of the Vitality Institute) cites the study as a basis for wanting shareholders to “pressure” companies into disclosing the number of fat employees they have. And the more fat employees a company has, the more shareholders will insist on wellness programs, thanks to this study. Johnson & Johnson and Discovery both sell wellness programs, while Merck and Novo-Nordisk sell drugs for various wellness-related conditions.
We urge reading the HBR link in its entirety to see why a fat tax would be even worse than it sounds. Some highlights:
- No one knows how to measure this stuff. Example: Keas tried to measure stress and failed hilariously…and they all want to use body mass index (BMI) for weight, but BMI turns out to be an inaccurate measure of health;
- Two of the companies in this cabal, PepsiCo and Discovery/Vitality, can’t even get their own employees to lose weight;
- Employer weight loss programs don’t work;
- As this blog noted last week, even wellness promoters – including Goetzel – say it loses money.
Most importantly, though – and you don’t need Harvard to learn this – it’s just not nice to stigmatize employees for their weight or other shortcomings unrelated to job performance. Basic human decency should have been taught to this cabal a long time ago.
We’ve pointed out many times in ITL that these wellness people were absent the day the fifth-grade teacher covered arithmetic. This proposal suggests that they were also absent the day the kindergarten teacher taught manners.