update from the reader whose company started an annoying initiative involving health and religion

Remember the letter from the reader whose company had started an annoying initiative involving health and religion? In the name of “wellness,” the company was passing out materials recommending attending religious services and drinking alcohol, among other things. Here’s her update:

A while back I wrote you about the company I work for joining the Blue Zones initiative and pushing everyone to be a part of it.

After hearing from you and your insightful readers I did write a reply to the most recent mass email from HR. The gist of my email was “I don’t know if you realized this, but Blue Zones prescribes X practices and recommending these practices in the workplace will likely make Y uncomfortable. I hope we can reconsider our participation in this program.” I received a reply from an HR manager, who wrote that Blue Zones is a voluntary program and a “learning opportunity.” She blew off my concerns and directed me to the program website. Her email annoyed me and I planned to write back, but I didn’t get around to it and there was a holiday weekend. At some point I felt that too much time had passed and I hadn’t seen any new Blue Zones promotions anyway.

Then one Monday morning everyone had flyers on their desks that read “We need your help to meet (company)’s goal!” This is the only time I know of that flyers have been distributed that way, to everyone. The HR person who had responded to my email was also sitting next to the lunch line in the cafeteria, asking people waiting to buy lunch if they had signed up for the program. I emailed the HR person again, because I saw the flyer as a direct solicitation. This time I took text directly from the website, and stated again that it is inappropriate to promote highly personal choices that have nothing to do with work, in the workplace. I also stated that while I feel I am free to ignore people with clipboards at the farmers market (as the city government is behind Blue Zones), I am not free to ignore a flyer left on my computer.

The response I got included “Please do not feel you can’t ignore the flyer—simply put it in the trash if you don’t care to be involved” and “Our senior leadership is in full support of this initiative.” The part about putting the flyer in the trash seems snippy to me. She forwarded my email to a senior vice president of a group who is at this site, and that woman’s response was even more condescending. She wrote that this company is joining Blue Zones as part of a statewide initiative, and wrote that there is “absolutely no pressure for you, as an individual, to enage…” She also wrote “While not all aspects of the Blue Zones comply with your own code or decisions, they have been academically studied and are effective in support of a healthy lifestyle.” That last part is inaccurate, and the first part is just rude. Neither of these people actually owned their role in the initiative; they just assured me that people high in the company do support it.

And that ends my pushback on the Blue Zones. I’m sure this will end up as most non-work workplace initiatives do, with a small dedicated group getting very excited and most people just ignoring; the whole idea remains creepy. I’m glad that I spoke up so that HR does not mistake the apathy that most employees show for acceptance. I would not have sent the emails if I planned to be at this company for much longer, though, because squeaky wheels don’t get much respect around here. I’m actually planning a switch to a completely different career in the next few years.

Who’s up for “Wine@5”?

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. K*

    How infuriating. I’d be tempted to send them a link to the Amazon page for Nate Silver’s book, which meticulously deconstructs the problem with statements like “they have been academically studied and are effective in support of a healthy lifestyle.” It’s pretty awful that people with so few critical thinking skills are in upper management, but such is life, I guess.

      1. K*

        It’s a long book and really fascinating, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice. And, of course, a statement like that could be entirely correct; we just don’t know unless we have a lot more information that we’re not being given. But to sum up, in brief, the book is about what predictions and forecasts succeed and which ones fail, taking a broad view of what constitutes predictions and forecasts (so a study that predicts “people who drink 2 glasses of wine are more likely to live longer” qualifies). And he goes through the common infirmities in those predictions. Which, first of all, a lot are driven by an agenda, consciously or unconsciously – even academics have a pretty strong incentive to have results that they can sum up in a pithy and dramatic fashion (“Study says wine makes you live longer!”)

        Second, he talks about the tendency of humans to “overfit” data – i.e., to see and extrapolate patterns where they don’t exist. Sometimes this is because they’re mistaking correlation for causation; sometimes it’s just because in a world with millions of variables, some of them are going to accidentally sync up for a bit in ways that aren’t predictive either.

        Third, he talks about people’s unwillingness to express the uncertainty in their predictions. Very seldom are you going to know something with 100% confidence, but that’s the way it gets stated.

        And he also talks about how few of the predictions we get both in academia and in the media do pan out. For instance, huge numbers of medical studies turn out not to be reproducable in later trials.

        So, in sum, when someone says something like “they have been academically studied and are effective in support of a healthy lifestyle,” it’s pretty meaningless unless you have a huge amount more data to evaluate.

        1. Color me Orange*

          My immediate question would be: is there a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. That’s the gold standard for causal evidence for an intervention: participants are assigned to treatment groups entirely at random, and neither the participants nor the assessors know which intervention they are assigned to. That’s the only study design that controls throughout for any tendency to choose and treat the two groups differently, as well as for confounding, which is what you get when a third factor linked to both the exposure and the outcome is what’s really responsible for the effect – the classic example being the study that showed that coffee caused cancer (it didn’t. When they adjusted for smoking, the link between coffee and cancer disappeared). Remember when hormone replacement therapy was supposed to be the fountain of youth, based on women who chose to take it, until the randomized controlled trial data came out, and showed that it actually increased the risk of certain diseases. In studies of health behaviours, if people self-select, then you get health-conscious people selecting themselves into the intervention group, and then the intervention sees the benefit of their OTHER behaviors – which is what happened with HRT.

          Of course, the majority of things we would like to study (for instance, lifestyle and behavior) can’t be administered blind, so either the studies are not blinded, and people will do other things depending on the assignment that may affect the outcome, or the data are purely observational, with no control over who receives what intervention. In principle it’s possible to adjust analytically for some of these factors IF you know about them, IF you have measured them, and IF you have measured them accurately. Big IFs. For example, socioeconomic status has a big effect on health outcomes – and increasingly epidemiologists are finding that socioeconomic status has a lifetime effect – but what’s frequently used for adjustment? Level of education, and income, which are one dimensional measures of a very complex effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these apparent effects were driven by socioeconomic status, being generally habits of the more affluent.

          In summary: not proven, weak evidence, off to the Orange Zone with me.

  2. Sharon*

    Wow. Just… wow.

    In my old and cynical experience neither HR nor upper management likes to have their pet projects criticized. I think that’s what’s going on here. I feel bad for the OP.

    1. Jennifer*

      Yeah, I thought the same thing. In general, I think the rule of thumb in life is “don’t criticize, at all, any stupid thing that was the manager’s idea.”

      I’m lucky we don’t have that to deal with. We just have weekly quizzes at my work (yup, just like in school) and “learning activities” and now we’re supposed to figure out how we’d work from home in the event of emergency, even though this isn’t really a job where that is doable and if an emergency happens, what we do will not be a priority.

      1. JT*

        I disagree. If you have the capacity to criticize (in terms of power or other opportunities at the job) something invasive like this, you have the responsibility to criticize. Other people – such as more junior employees – may not have that option, so people with more power or the option to leave if things get bad should step up.

        That’s being really professional and ethical. Of course, if there is real risk to your career, that is a fine reason not to step up like that.

        1. class factotum*

          I agree. At my old company, birth control pills were not covered (but Viagra was). I argued about it with another woman at my level. “Just have your doctor say it’s for a medical condition and then they’ll cover it,” she said.

          I told her that no, we needed to get the policy changed – that she and I could afford $30 a month (or now, $4 a month at Target or Walmart!) but the $20,000 a year receptionist could not and that someone needed to speak for her.

          My colleague refused to take action, but I wrote a letter to the head of HR with my objections and the reasons that the company should cover BCP.

          They actually changed their policy. I felt very powerful.

          (I also got them to cover dental implants two years later. Maybe I should become a professional “get things covered by insurance” person.)

          1. Laura L*

            “Maybe I should become a professional “get things covered by insurance” person.”

            Yes you should! It would be very helpful for the rest of us.

  3. Lisa*

    Oh wow. I’m sorry, OP :( As a teetotaler myself, I hate the idea of promoting alcohol as a “healthy choice” to employees. I just plain don’t like drinking, but enjoy being around people who drink and even being DD — but as a non-drinker I’ve gotten to know lots of fellow teetotalers for whom alcohol brings up painful memories either of their own alcoholism from which they’re recovering, or of abuse suffered at the hands of an alcoholic. Ugh. Your company stinks!

  4. fposte*

    I think you hit all the options you had, OP, and if I were a co-worker of yours I’d be grateful.

    1. KarenT*


      It’s really commendable that you stood up for yourself. The fact that your whole state and city government are supporting this initiative probably means you won’t have much luck getting your company to back down, but at least you are not drinking the Kool-Aid.

      And recruiting people in line in a cafeteria doesn’t seem terribly voluntary (talk about high pressure) but it sounds like your HR is really covering her butt by telling you joining is mandatory.

      Her saying your “codes and desicions” is really condescending and rude. An alcoholic not having a glass of wine after work is hardly a code or belief, nor are some of the other things you mentioned in your original post.

      1. twentymilehike*

        … but at least you are not drinking the Kool-Aid

        … The alcoholic Kool-Aid!

        Sorry, I have the Snark today. My husband and I don’t drink and that would just piss me off. I’d start brining in fun facts about how drinking is bad for you and leaving them around the office. I can play the same game.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I agree, I think this is awesome. But the whole thing is so maddening sounding. It would drive me up the wall. I’m glad to hear the OP is planning on moving on.

  5. A Bug!*

    I don’t know how they can really take the position that it’s voluntary when they push it so hard and emphasize that the upper management is 100% behind it.

    There is an obvious implication there that anyone who wants to fit in and succeed at that company does have to participate in the program. It’s not strictly “voluntary” when choosing not to participate will harm you professionally.

      1. Not even close.*

        We had a word for this is the military … When a supervisor would force us to volunteer for something, it was “Voluntold”. As in, “I didn’t want to work the air show but I was voluntold by the sup. “

          1. Arts Nerd*

            In my high school I called it “forced volunteerism.”

            It was frustrating because I actually really like volunteering and community service, but the school place me in assignments that were just setups for failure.

        1. Kelly O*

          I’ve joked for some time that in church settings, it’s “voluntold” too.

          Rather, “volun-no one else would do it so I got stuck.” But that’s not entirely applicable in this context.

    1. Rana*

      That part of it really jumped out at me too. OP, I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this.

  6. Erica B*

    ugh.. that sounds super annoying. And how can “encouraging alcohol” be a healthy lifestyle choice for someone who doesn’t drink. wth.. that’s just crazy.
    If the hire ups say that it has been academically studied, then ask to see the studies/journal articles. Articles published by crazyfakestudies.com (or whatever) doesn’t been it’s actually good for you, geez

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Yeah, that was my first thought. I would have said “Academically studied WHERE? And by whom?” *who? Just because it was a study doesn’t mean it’s valid in any way.

  7. moss*

    “academically studied” is meaningless. If you were going to push this, which you aren’t and I totally respect that, you could ask to see the data.

    1. J*

      Totally agreed! Academically studied could also mean “studied and found to be useless” (!!!!!!!!!)

    2. KellyK*

      Absolutely. “Academically studied” tells you nothing about the specific results, whether it’s been repeated, how good the study was, whether the results are being interpreted appropriately, etc. etc. etc.

      There’s a little bit of a difference between “a dozen prestigious universities have studied this rigorously, controlling for lots of things, and gotten similar results” and “a company funded a single study that makes their product look good” and “a couple grad students made up half their data, plagiarized the other half, and have since failed out, but they posted the results on their blog, so that totally counts as published, right?”

        1. Ellie H.*

          #552 is probably my favorite xkcd (except for, perhaps, the “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” one. Or, you know, EVERY xkcd). I am constantly finding appropriate occasions to link people to it. But, all of those are fantastic.

  8. Yup*

    When you quit, be sure to tell them that you’re just exercising your sector two career feng shui (or whatever the blue zones lingo is for getting a job with a less annoying employer).


  9. Brett*

    Well, at least you’ve registered your opinion on the program. When it comes to the next decision point to continue to spend time and money on it maybe that will have an impact.

    I just had to get blood drawn for my companies insurance…well, it isn’t required but the company has made the cost very high then rebates it back if you get a panel of blood tests (cholesterol, etc). I see the value in this from a health perspective, but I’m not sure I like the coercive method of participation.

    1. Sasha*

      My former employer did similar things with our wellness programs and also with flu shots. I never get flu shots, but one year (during the bird flu scare), they pressured us so badly it was implied we would be fired or seriously reprimanded if we didn’t get a flu shot. Glad I’m not there anymore!

        1. Sasha*

          Memos were sent from upper management saying we were “strongly encouraged” to get a flu shot, that if we didn’t we were risking everyone around us, and we shouldn’t be selfish and abstain from the shots. My director said off the record that we would get called in to talk to the president if we chose not to get the shot, and according to the culture of that place, getting called in to talk to him was code for firing.

          1. Anonymous*

            I think being coerced into a medical process warrants an “is that legal”? I know 99.9% of the time, the answer is yes, but I admit I would be shocked if someone could be fired for refusing a flu shot.

            1. Jamie*

              This gets into a sticky protected area as the live vaccine is contraindicated in pregnant women and could force an employee to disclose.

              Pregnancy being protected, but being forced to disclose may not violate that but if I were the employer I would stay far away from that.

              Also contraindicated for medical disorders that ne may not want or need to disclose in normal circumstances.

              1. Sasha*

                Pregnancy, contraindicated disorders, etc., had been waived. We weren’t actually forced to disclose proof of the shot – they did stay away from requiring that – but the pressure was on nonetheless. All that being said, this place had a thriving culture of fear of the higher-ups, so even if they didn’t plan on actually firing anyone, they sure wanted us to believe it.

              2. shellbell*

                I thought pregnant women were on the list of vulnerable people who need the vaccine the most. They even get preference if there is a shortage.

              3. kimberly*

                The nasal vaccine (no needles) is live but weakened. The injection is not live and safe for pregnant women. (the nasal vaccine is probably safe for pregnant women, too; but the injection is known to be safe for them)

                1. fposte*

                  By Donna, anyway–I’m just the messenger :-).

                  I do think it’s interesting that it’s flu vaccines that bring up the most controversy, when they’re not the only vaccines that places require.

              1. A Teacher*

                My sister is an emergency department nurse at her facility–a level one trauma center–they aren’t “required” to get the flu shot but if they don’t, they have to wear those pesky masks during the entire flu season for all of their shift. She gets the vaccine because she doesn’t want that particular strand of the flu and the idea of wearing a mask for 12+ hours on her shift is enough of a reason. Plus for some of us that work in health care being exposed to so much, I’m all for the vaccine but it shouldn’t be forced on anyone.

    2. Anonymous*

      We get a $200 credit against our health care costs if we agree to a blood pressure/weight and blood screen. No thanks, keep your $200! My weight is avg, my blood work is fine and my blood pressure is textbook but regardless, I will not give up my privacy.

      1. Judy*

        We do also, but it can be part of our regular wellness exam. It’s not reported to the insurance from the doctor. It’s just that you have the discussion.

      2. Anonymous*

        Do they actually forward the results to your company? I would have assumed/hoped all that got back to the company is “Pass Go, collect $200”.

        1. Brett*

          My employer contracts this testing through some third-party health company (who then contracts it through a nationwide lab company), and they provide aggregate and demographic info back to the employer, but not specifics.

          Which I think is probably a big part of why they do it, to use for negotiating their insurance contracts with potentially improving employee health as an added bonus.

          The oddest part of the whole process for me was that I had to provide my blood pressure during registration to get the lab order. As though we all have a nurse with a blood pressure cuff in the broom closet :)

      3. Sharon*

        Last year my company ran a program where they paid for our December health care premium if we got a physical exam. That’s lovely and I would have participated except the paperwork requirements bothered me. We had to fill out a silly health profile in the insurance company website and submit an “affidavit” signed by our doctor that we got the exam. My problem is this: the insurance company pays for the exam, right? So they can simply provide a list of names back to my employer without us having to do all that silly busy work.

        FWIW, I got both the exam and did the website Cosmo Quiz, but didn’t submit the signed letter from my doctor. Am I less healthy because of it? (Rhetorical question)

      4. Josh S*

        My wife’s employer (where we get our insurance) just started participating in some sort of proactive health care thing. If you don’t participate, your insurance rates increase by around $2600 for the year ($50 per adult on the plan, per paycheck). Participation includes some sort of monthly activity or call from a nurse of some sort to get you to ‘be healthier’ per their definitions, absent any sort of relationship with the ‘patients’.

        You have to get a “biometric screening” (height, weight, BMI, cholesterol, etc) including a blood draw. They encourage you to use their people for the draw and assure you that everything remains ‘confidential.’

        However, I know that the insurance company is the one that is using the (presumably aggregated) data to inform their group insurance rates.

        The nice thing? If you use your own doctor, there’s a form to fill out. If the program is truly confidential, they have no way to verify the information provided.

        As a person who (obviously) dislikes this notion, I plan to forge the information, sign Mickey Mouse as the doctor, and go about my business. This ~230lb guy just dropped 40 pounds! :)

        1. Julie*

          Your wife and I might work for the same employer because my company just started the same thing with the same type of penalties for not getting the biometric screening. So we’re going to do it because we can’t afford not to. But we’re going to go to the lab’s offices to get it done so we don’t have to pay for office visits to the doctor. I’m not happy about being coerced into this. Plus, they’ve told us that next year, we’ll have much higher premiums, and they’re blaming the new health care laws. Makes me want to consider finding a different employer with better benefits.

          1. Josh S*

            Do you work for a large public/government employer in a major midwest metro area whose employees staged a strike a handful of months ago?

  10. Lisa*

    FYI – I wanted to mention in case some people are unaware… Many major health insurance companies offer gym membership reimbursements for up to $200. Some even will pay back portions of Weight Watcher fees too.

    Might want to check it out. Off to my gym to get a copy of my membership contract.

      1. Ariancita*

        fposte–this is interesting because I’m think you’re in academia as well, yes? And you might be using the university’s health plan? We have a great plan (everything is free–no copay, no monthly payment, no deductible), but I thought our FSA was for only clinical/medical services. If your university offers FSA for gym membership, there’s a good chance mine does too. I’m going to look into this! Thanks!

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I think most FSA rules are the same. The FSA will usually allow a gym membership if you have a doctor’s note that it will help for a specific condition. Most doctors are on board so you can come up with things like “help reduce obesity” or “lowering blood pressure” or some such nonsense to get the FSA to cover it. Apparently “oggling at men” is not covered though, even though it’s great for my well-being!

          1. fposte*

            Ariancita’s right about the limits of some plans, though– including mine, which has actually gotten more limited, in that it’s now strictly for paying for medical/dental costs or prescription medications (I’m pretty sure it at least covered OTC drugs years back but explicitly doesn’t now). Fortunately, some plans are actually mean the Flexible part.

            Ariancita, I actually went to check mine out again as a result of this thread and was reminded of why I don’t use it–very narrow and a pain to do the paperwork. Is that about what yours is?

          2. Ariancita*

            Yep, I took a look and noticed that. And I could easily get a doctor’s scrip for it, but I’m doubting it’s worth it since my neighborhood gym is only 12$/month and I only need it during winter when I can’t run outdoors. Hmmm…. They also do medications, but my university has such a great meds program that I can get 3 months worth for 10$. Not sure if it’s worth signing up for since I doubt these expenses are that tax worthy. I think if my gym were 80/mo it might be more worth it.

        2. fposte*

          I may have misled you, Ariancita–the “I know some plans let you do this” and “I underuse my plan” were unrelated thoughts. I rechecked mine on account of this thread, and it’s even more limited than it used to be–strictly medical/dental and prescription drug payments, and the paperwork is a PITA. I had always assumed that was a state thing rather than an academic thing, but if this sounds like yours, then maybe it’s just the way academics roll on these.

        3. Aimee*

          FSA rules are generally governed by the IRS, I believe. I just used up my remaining funds by ordering a bunch of medical supplies (bandaids, contact lens solution) that are covered without a prescription and discovered that breast feeding supplies (including breast pumps) are also covered! I had no idea (but am very glad, because I am waiting around for my baby to be born any day and was planning on buying a new pump before I went back to work anyway). There are a lot of things that can be covered that I wouldn’t have thought of but will definitely use.

          1. Ariancita*

            Yep, I saw the breast pump on there! There’s a lot of stuff covered…but not much of what I need. I wonder if I can get my doctor to say getting massages are medically necessary??? :)

            1. fposte*

              I had a prescription for them for a year after surgery and did just that. Not sure I have the nerve to ask my doctor to do that every year, though!

            2. Kat M*

              I know you were being silly, but depending on what state you’re in and what insurance you have, it’s definitely possible to get coverage for massage! I’m a massage therapist in a chronic pain management clinic, and all my clients are able to see me because their treatments are covered by insurance. Can’t hurt to ask! :)

  11. Just a Reader*

    This would be enough for me to quit…how obnoxious. Programs for people to take advantage of if they choose = good. Getting all up in employees’ faces about it = horrible and disrespectful.

  12. Anonymous*

    “simply put it in the trash if you don’t care to be involved”

    “Will do, thanks for the suggestion.”

  13. Not So NewReader*

    I don’t get this whole thing. Good health practices? No program will work if the person is unwilling or begrudging. I think Weight Watchers would frown on hog-tying and dragging people through the door.
    Even more specifically,good and proper churches do not want hostages- they only want willing people.
    And how can they “make” a diabetic drink any alcohol? That is a laws suit looking for actors.
    Lastly- creating a culture where people feel pressured to join in particular programs, ironically creates the very problems the programs are supposed to resolve. Pressured people end up with– uh—- health problems.

    I have friends who paint together- as in painting pictures. It is very relaxing for them. They talk about life and help each other with their painting techniques. I would bet that it has some therapeutic health value for them to paint together. Me? I would end up frustrated/stressed to tears as my self-portrait looks like a stick figure and my friend’s self portrait looks like the Mona Lisa.
    Let everyone find their own way and what works for them.

  14. Mishsmom*

    so they’re spending company money and company time to promote this… i bet a higher up has a vested (financial?) interest somewhere…

  15. Katie the Fed*

    This entire thing is patronizing and awful. I went back to read the original post and…wow. As if by the time you’re an adult you haven’t already had the opportunity to explore religions, lifestyle choices, etc.

    If they want to promote general wellness, start with flexible work schedules, generous paternity/maternity leaves, flexible leave, and a gym in the building that employees can use for a certain number of paid hours each week.

    Christ. Or bourbon. Or whatever makes me happiest.

  16. dejavu2*

    What a horrifying update. This Blue Zones in the workplace thing sounds insane! It sounds like the LW has done all she can. I kept reading this update waiting for the part where a sane person intervened and it all went away.

    That said, after perusing the Blue Zones website (which is totally creepy and appears to be based on fluff science), I disagree with the OP’s interpretation of the “Wine at 5” principle. My interpretation is that it suggests only that drinking isn’t inherently bad, but if you choose to drink, limit yourself to a small amount of wine accompanied by a meal. Honestly, I think the wording is vague enough that it could go either way, but I am partial to this interpretation.

  17. Editor*

    I looked at some sites talking about Blue Zones and the push Wellmark was making in Iowa to get the state’s wellness ranking up.

    One of the Blue Zone principles says people should reduce stress in their lives. Given that many employers contribute to the stress their employees face, is Iowa passing laws requiring food service and other employers to provide adequate sick leave, is it limiting the hours salaried workers can put in or stipulating a shorter workweek, has it raised the minimum wage, and is the state mandating vacation time?

    The idea that behaving like we lived in Okinawa or Sicily might lengthen our lives is a nice one, but it requires changes in corporate culture. Inflicting this program on employees, telling them to get well, and not changing employment conditions is hypocritical. If the state wants to support a health plan that relies on island time for success, then Iowa should send its population to the Caribbean.

  18. David Smith*

    Everyone else has expressed support for the OP, but I think it was a career mistake, and that battles should be picked more selectively.

    My advice : Blue Zone has nine recommended practices — pick one or two that you can adopt and live with, develop a testimonial that you can share if/when anyone higher in the food chain asks, and get back to work.

    If I am going to rock the boat, it’s going to be related to my core job functions, and not over something that everyone understands is a seasonal breeze.

  19. archaeomanda*

    I distrust pretty much anything that feels compelled to pepper their website and materials with copyright symbols on every other phrase.

    In any case, there might be some degree of evidence that these practices might be good for you, but I really resent linking your health status or private behaviors to your work. Obviously you need to be healthy enough to do your job, but beyond that, it’s nobody else’s business.

Comments are closed.