Should companies publicly report employees’ weight and stress levels?


By Ike Swetlitz

Do you know how stressed Merck employees are? How about the average body mass index of workers at IBM?

Soon, you might. Several giants of global industry, including Novo Nordisk, Johnson & Johnson, and PepsiCo, on Friday joined forces with nonprofit health advocacy groups to call for businesses large and small to publish information about the health of their employees.

The goal: To give executives, investors, and directors a window into the durability of a valuable corporate asset — the workforce.

“Sadly, many companies have a better sense of the wear on their machinery than the health of their employees,” said Derek Yach, chief health officer of The Vitality Group, which designs employee wellness programs and helped organize the initiative, unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Just what data, exactly, companies might collect and publish remains unclear.

Yach suggested measures such as changes in employees’ body mass index or anxiety levels. Or how many start, or stop, smoking. The information, he said, would be reported in aggregate, not for individuals.

Eileen McNeely, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who worked on the program, said companies might also measure and report broader metrics, such as whether employees are “socially connected” or “full of purpose.”

She called it the next step in a decades-long effort to encourage companies to be more transparent about their impact on the world outside their bottom line. So far, such disclosures have mostly focused on environmental impact.

“This report is calling for health and well-being to be as central to these nonfinancial disclosures as carbon emissions and waste and water utilization,” McNeely said.

STAT reached out to several global companies that joined the initiative. Merck, Unilever, and Novo Nordisk would not answer specific questions about the type of data they plan to collect or publish.

One of the smaller companies participating in the initiative, Allegacy Federal Credit Union of North Carolina, already publishes a three-page “corporate health metrics report” that rates the company on categories ranging from “leadership” to “health status” to “environment.”

Garrick Throckmorton, an assistant vice president at the credit union, said Allegacy has no plans to report “specifically on the literal health of an employee or an employee group.”

But other companies are doing just that — among them, Discovery Ltd., a South Africa-based financial services organization that signed on to the initiative. (The Vitality Group, which is organizing the campaign, is a member of the Discovery organization.)

In a report last year, Discovery noted that the proportion of overweight employees — those deemed “at risk” due to high body mass index — rose from 58 percent to 60 percent. The share of employees at risk due to “poor nutritional intake” also edged up 2 percent.

On the plus side, employees lost a collective 210 inches from their waist circumference.

The Discovery report also details results from the company’s “10 Ton Challenge,” listing which departments lost the most weight.

Publishing such information could spur discrimination against employees who have trouble keeping up with the pack, said James Zervios, a vice president at the Obesity Action Coalition.

“It does inadvertently put a target on employees’s backs who are dealing with obesity,” he said.

“If you want to talk about how many times a machine broke down last year, I can understand that,” Zervios said. But people, he said, don’t belong in that category of asset. “At the end of the day, these are human beings. We all have families, we all have lives, we all have problems,” he said.

Yach said he is confident that existing laws are strong enough to prevent companies from firing employees for being unhealthy.

And he and others involved with the initiative said holding companies accountable for their employees’ health is important — not just for the workers, but for stockholders. They point to a study recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which found that several companies that had won an award for wellness programs outperformed the S&P 500.

It’s important to note, however, that the awards only honored companies with good programs; it wasn’t an award for the healthiest employees. And there’s no proof that the financial gains had anything at all to do with employee weight or mental health. But Yach said he was convinced that it was “more than a pure chance finding.”

Furthermore, he said, employee health data might be useful to investors.

STAT contacted more than a dozen investors to see if they, in fact, wanted such information. Only the Tennessee Department of Treasury responded to specific questions.

Their response? “We really do not have an opinion on this novel information.”


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