The Stigma Of Overweight Healthcare Professionals
Written by Vince Han, CEO and Founder of Coach Alba
Influencing human behavior towards better health is not easy. Perhaps there is no better example of this than walking into a healthcare facility in the United States and seeing the irony of overweight healthcare staff working at the very venue that is supposed to represent health. As our collective consciousness becomes increasingly focused on the health (or lack thereof) of our citizens, it is no surprise that we are focusing more attention on this unfortunate hypocrisy.
Yet it is interesting that this hypocrisy does not seem to elicit the same public outcry when an elected public official is caught violating public trust or when a notable religious figure is guilty of immoral indiscretions. Why? Maybe it is because we can all empathize with the fact that getting healthy is really hard, even when our credibility is at stake. The statistics are telling: 95 percent of dieters gain their weight back and 9 out of 10 heart bypass surgery patients are back to old habits after just two years.
But despite our empathy, there is a cost to the way this looks. When an overweight doctor or nurse is prescribing healthy behaviors to a patient, the message is simply not received with the moral authority needed. Is it any wonder that the weight loss industry’s marketing messages of “quick fixes” and “take this pill” overwhelm the surer message of sustained behavior change?
Those that spend their time studying human behavior should not be surprised that hospitals struggle with this issue. There are several driving attributes about the hospital environment that are conducive to staff members making unhealthy choices:
When people experience stress, their bodies release hormones that encourage fat formation. Many people cope with stress by eating, which provides both physical and psychological relief.
The responsibilities that require health professionals to deal with life-threatening trauma and sick or cranky patients are naturally going to stress them out, in many cases for hours and hours at a time.
Dynamic for Lower Wage Employees
In the United States, obesity prevalence among women correlates with their level of income. As with any industry, hospitals have segments of workers who work long hours with wages that are a stone’s throw from national poverty thresholds. For example, consider a nurse aid who is a working single mother that faces tough health choices such as deciding between a convenient, inexpensive, and unhealthy fast food meal or finding the energy to cook a healthy meal for her family after working an exhausting shift.
Overweight health employees is becoming an increasing concern
Long Hours, Fatigue
Hospitals are open all day and all night. Employees who are subject to abnormal and fluctuating work schedules find it logistically challenging to maintain a reliable and healthy exercise and eating routine.
Proximity of Healthy Food Choices
Health conscious eaters may be consistently frustrated when visiting a hospital and seeing the lack of healthy food options in the cafeterias. Burgers, fries and sandwiches rich in calories are commonplace where fresh salads are more rare. Hungry staff members are limited to what is available on the premises and will eat what is most convenient.
Becoming Like One Another
A recent Harvard study concluded that if you have four obese friends, you are two times as likely to become obese yourself. Healthcare facilities with an existing obesity problem among its workforce have this extra hurdle to overcome; their population is a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging workers who are not obese to gain weight.
So what are hospitals doing to combat this problem? There are reports that some healthcare facilities are mandating levels of BMI as a requirement for employment. Yet not too many hospitals have the luxury or disposition for such draconian measures. However, as with any employer, the hospital is in a position of significant influence to have an impact on the health of its workforce. Most hospitals are investing in improving employee wellness programs designed to educate, motivate, and even compensate employees for achieving healthier personal outcomes. This undoubtedly will require several years of trial and error to see measurable improvement.
Any successful wellness program needs to start with a recognition and admission of these key attributes that promote unhealthy decisions. Hospital wellness directors would do well to focus on the long-term culture change that is required to create more forces that promote health than the forces that tempt staff to poor health. Popular one-off wellness activities like “Biggest Loser” weight loss competitions or pedometer-based walking contests may boost participation levels in the short-term, but these activities alone will only result in short-term results (remember that people more often gain the weight back that they lose).
Creating long-term measurable change requires that wellness become a corporate value, one that is fully recognized and supported by healthcare executives as part of the overall strategic mission and business plan. With all the recent talk of demanding better accountability from our healthcare system, the time is ideal for this important sea change to take place in our country and starting in our hospitals.