Candy Culture to Health-Obsessed: A Wellness Convert's HR Tale

By Rachel Topper March 4, 2013

We used to call it the Freshman 15. “Welcome to Direct Response. Here is your benefits information, pay schedule, employee handbook, and, oh, just an FYI, be prepared to gain 15 pounds this year.”

New hires would giggle nervously, not quite sure what to make of this bold statement, and then, sure enough, at the end of their first year I would hear, “Holy cow, I’ve gained 15 pounds since I started working here!”

I hate to say I told you so … but I told you so. I hate to say it’s my fault … but it is.

You see, we are a candy culture. I blame the mother in me—she wants to feed everyone, all the time.

Oh, you’re stressed? Here’s some chocolate. You missed lunch? Here are some peanut butter crackers. Don’t forget dessert. These fancy popcorn packs don’t stay fresh forever!

My office was filled to the brim with candy, cookies, nuts, chocolates and Pop Tarts (yes, Pop Tarts!). Not to mention an amazing little candy dispenser that filled your palm with a slight wave of your hand.

Every month I’d take my corporate credit card over to Costco and go crazy. I’d joke about feeding the animals, but really, it wasn’t too far off. Not to say my co-workers are animals, but something breaks inside of you when you are surrounded by that much junk. Gluttony is how I would describe it.

An Awakening

I started hearing rumblings of this thing called “health and wellness” initiatives. I balked. What fun is that? Over the years the owners of the company would make comments like, “Why don’t we get some fruit and veggies in here?” Or “Man, Slim Jims? Who eats that stuff?” But they never told me to stop.

And then one of the owners was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He decided instead of invasive procedures and high-risk treatment, he was going to completely overhaul his lifestyle. To say that he stopped smoking and drinking and lost 40 pounds would be understating the change. He also gave up meat, sugar and dairy, and anything remotely toxic. He eats a vegan diet, exercises regularly and stays abreast of the latest news and trends by reading and watching everything he can with regard to this new lifestyle.

I’m not going to say he cured his cancer, but he did reduce his cholesterol and blood pressure from dangerous levels to normal and got his PSA (prostate-cancer risk) numbers stabilized to the point where he doesn’t need treatment. He feels better than he has felt in his entire life and wants to share his knowledge with everyone he meets. He is a success story to be bragged about.

Forsaking the Cake

A few months ago he asked me to find ways to motivate the staff to get healthy. I started to attend seminars and conference calls on the new health and wellness initiatives dominating the workplace nationwide. Healthier employees lead to lower costs in health care, fewer sick days, more productivity and happier people. Duh.

I should note that I knew absolutely nothing about health and wellness. As for dieting, give me a cheeseburger, a pizza or a slice of cake and I’m happy. Admittedly, I’ve been struggling with my weight for years. I’ve tried everything (for at leastthree days) and then resumed my old ways.

I'm not fat, I just have a muffin top. And oh, how I want to fit into my old jeans. The ones I had before I let age, time and donuts get the best of me.

So (perhaps begrudgingly at first) I began to implement some changes in the office that I hoped would help me and everyone else ditch a few pounds and improve our overall health and wellness.

First, the Costco runs had to go. Don’t worry—I gave ample notice to the staff. I mean, you can’t just cut off their supply and make them go cold turkey; that’s just cruel.

Since employee snacks are part of our company perks program, we started to replace the popcorn, cookies and, yes, even the Pop Tarts with foods that are found in nature, like the fresh organic fruit that's delivered to the office on Mondays. Bagel Fridays were ditched for Salad Thursdays. When I make a supermarket run, it's for a vegetable tray.

Incentives and Moral Support

In the spirit of our new officewide initiative, the owner of the company agreed to pay each person who lost 10 pounds $50 cash. We also started a “Biggest Loser” competition, which includes cash prizes and other incentives.

For a staff of 35, we had almost 50 percent participation. We set goals, figure out what works for us and get together every Tuesday for Weigh-In Day and a group meeting. We exchange recipes, tips and tricks and applaud one another to keep ourselves on track. Every week someone shares his or her experience, including diet and exercise programs (Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, calorie tracking through Myfitnesspal and others). Someone even gave a recipe for cauliflower pizza that I can’t stop making.

Sometimes we talk about who fell off the wagon by way of birthday cake, a visit from the in-laws or too many beers with friends. But the important part is that we share how we climbed right back onto the wagon. It’s not that easy to give up when people are rooting for you and sharing things that you don’t normally talk about with co-workers.

After the first six weeks of our meetings, collectively we lost more than 100 pounds. We are all making better choices, eating healthier, sleeping better and fitting into our clothes. The competition isn’t over, but the new culture is here. Let’s all go buy some skinny jeans!

Rachel Topper is the human resources director at Direct Response Consulting Services in McLean, Va.​

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