Wellness Programs Should Offer Alternative to Exercise

By Max Mihelich

Mar. 4, 2014

John Burke, the president of Trek Bicycle, gave a speech in Chicago on Feb. 26, in which he told his audience of Chicago business leaders that their obese employees are a liability. Burke also revealed a mandatory eight-step program for the employees of his company.

The gist of his speech can be summed up with this paragraph from his blog post on the same topic: “Do your country a favor, do your company a favor, and most importantly, do your employees a favor and be brutally honest about the health of your company. The future depends on it.”

I don’t disagree that living a healthy lifestyle is a positive thing for people to strive toward. After reading his blog post on the subject, Burke and his company’s wellness program seems well-intended.  I am, however, wary of the “brutal honesty” approach.

As president of Trek, Burke can manage the company however he wants. But brutal honesty, or “frankness,” is only effective insofar as it’s carried out with a certain grace and social tact. The person at the party who says something rude “because everyone else was thinking it” is usually considered a jerk, not a hero. If I were a healthy employee at Trek and I heard my manager telling an obese co-worker they were a liability to the company because of their health (hopefully leaving appearance out of it), I wouldn’t feel very inspired to participate in the health and wellness program.

I hope Burke and his wellness team have put as much thought into motivating unhealthy employees to participate in the eight-part program as they did developing it. If obese and unhealthy employees are bad for business, then I think it’s fair to argue an executive who plays “body police” and essentially bullies employees into participating in a health and wellness program is bad for business, too. 

More importantly, I hope Trek’s lawyers were involved in the development of this mandatory program, especially with the broad meaning of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Given that participation is mandatory, how would Trek accommodate a disabled employee to allow participation in the physical aspect?

With that in mind, I think it would a good idea if a company offered a healthy-eating alternative goal to their wellness program, which offered classes on what is, how to shop for, and prepare healthy, natural food. Trek has an onsite café that offers employees healthy options, and nutrition education is a part of the wellness program for “high-risk” employees. But if they’re trying to get all employees to eat healthy more often, they should educate them on how to do just that.

I have a couple friends with B.A.’s in health education, and my mom is a fitness instructor. All three have taught me what you eat is just as — if not more — important than exercising when it comes to being healthy.

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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