Diet Contests Turn American Workplaces Into Lord of the Flies Scenarios

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Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Corbis

Because going to work and going on a diet aren’t individually miserable enough, some companies are combining the two with “employer-sponsored weight-loss contests.” Not to be confused with the office juice cleanse, where the only prize is an anorexic’s high, in the employer-sponsored weight contest, there’s often as much as $10,000 on the line for the team that loses the most weight. Last year, Cut Charlotte vividly imagined how an office juice cleanse would affect our workplace. Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story on the “booming” trend, we don’t have to imagine what an office team weight loss challenge would look like.

First, the team aspect. Employees choose their own teams because middle-school gym class was the best and because you're more likely to stay motivated with a group. But that also means that if your boss asks you to be on her team (and it’s not like you can refuse to be on your boss’s team), there’s a chance that one day the only thing coming between your boss and $10,000 is the cheeseburger between your hands. The Journal writes:

“Rarely a workday passes when Fred Thebeau doesn't dream of lunching with reckless abandon on a cheeseburger and fries. Problem is, the customer-service manager for a St. Louis-based marketing research company says, he fears the friendly tongue-lashing he'll get from his boss. As his teammate in a 12-week weight-loss competition sponsored by their employer, that boss, Terry Millard, admits to grilling Mr. Thebeau mercilessly the last time he broke down and bought a burger: 'Was that a sensible choice? Is that on your diet?'"

After that, good luck psychologically disentangling your job performance and your physical appearance. (Good luck ever dreaming about anyone other than your boss ever again.) Even if you can dodge that particular diet power dynamic, it’s not like you’d want to be on a “team” with anyone who’s restricting their calories. It makes people crazy enough to do things like this:

"Brandon Moser, a marketing director in Chandler, Ariz., says his five-member team in a DietBet contest imposed weekly penalties on members with the smallest loss, forcing them to wear clown or bunny suits for a day. Mr. Moser wasn't too keen about his own sentence for slacking off: 'For a 41-year-old man to be wearing a Justin Bieber shirt is really creepy.'"

Unsurprisingly, the Journal notes that the contests usually benefit men more than women, who are, truth be told, probably often in a state of team dieting on some subliminal, passive-aggressive level. (In case this all still sounds like good healthy bonding, keep in mind that the cash prizes also reportedly bring out the saboteurs, who plant Godiva chocolates and homemade biscotti around the office.) It makes sense for employers who pay for a fair amount of their employee’s health care to incentivize weight loss. Here’s hoping they also pay for the therapy it’s going to take for everyone to recover from it.