When Corporate Wellness Initiatives Turn into Judgment and Shaming

When I was in graduate school at the University of Florida in the late 1990s, I lived in an apartment complex for spoiled young people, in which the furnishings and utilities were included in the rent just to make our lives easier. A consequence of living in such a place is the kind of people you meet—the culture you’re exposed to. I became close friends with a girl who lived across the hall from me, and became friendly with her roommates and circle of friends. Part of the culture was what you might call lunch shaming. If any of them found a wrapper from a fast food restaurant in the trash, they would shame the person who ate the meal it came from. One of these girls said she would live vicariously through me when I was eating cheese fries.

That memory was sparked last week when I read an article in The Atlantic on “The Tyranny of Workplace Food-Shaming.” I didn’t know this was a thing. “As attitudes about body image creak into the future, the workplace remains a stubborn locus of petty sniping about diet and exercise routines. Many workers have a hard time escaping that one person leaning over people’s shoulders to give them feedback on their lunches,” Amanda Mull writes.

That made me wonder whether this food-shaming, and consciousness of other people’s food routines, could be a part of some companies’ culture—an unintentional result of an emphasis on creating a “healthy” workplace. With wellness initiatives in the office, a part of employees’ lives—their diet and fitness—that used to be considered strictly private—is open for discussion. 

Is there a way to encourage a healthy workplace in which snacks such as fruits and vegetables are readily available, and where meetings are sometimes walking or exercising meetings, without also encouraging a high level of judgment? Managers could be trained to keep their ears open for critical commentary about the diet and exercise routines of co-workers, and then put an end to it, refocusing on wellness. 

It’s interesting to consider what it says about a workplace when a wellness culture becomes a judgment culture. If the goal of becoming healthier deteriorates into judgment and competition, it’s likely that the same thing is happening with the company’s other initiatives. What causes change and improvement initiatives to become negative and critical, rather than upbeat and affirming? It could be the behaviors of the most senior executives, which then trickle down to the rest of the company. It’s the executives racing to beat each other to the office by 7 a.m., or earlier, and then boasting about how many miles they each ran the previous weekend, and poking fun at out-of-shape co-workers, or those who opt for a burger and fries instead of a salad for lunch. 

A judgmental culture can be seen in all facets of work, in which there is an emphasis on employees showing their value through criticism, rather than helpfulness and support. It’s what I call the peanut gallery, full of “team” members who do little more than tell you what’s wrong, (maybe) make unrealistic suggestions, and then stand back and do nothing to help. It’s not a great leap to see those same personalities as the ones most likely to look with a critical, judgmental eye on others’ fitness, and then make comments on shortcomings to shore up their own sense of superiority. 

What’s the best way to regulate the conversation and culture around corporate wellness programs? It’s a challenge because a manager can’t overhear every conversation, and constantly chastise employees for casual comments about their co-workers’ unhealthy food choices. The best corrective may be to stay supportive, rather than critical, in everything the manager does, modeling that approach to employees. Over time, it will sink in for employees that their work group is more interested in encouraging positive steps, than searching for faults, and the opportunity to cast judgment. 

Does your company have a wellness initiative and/or culture? How do you ensure the focus stays positive and doesn’t devolve into shaming?

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