Back in April this year, Nithin Kamath, founder and CEO of Zerodha, set a BMI (Body Mass Index) challenge for his employees. Anyone managing to bring down his BMI to below 25 would be offered half a month’s salary as bonus. This announcement immediately faced an online backlash, with many pointing out the unscientific nature of such a challenge.
After all, it is now widely understood that BMI is an outdated and simplistic indicator of health. It is a measure of body fat in the context of an individual’s height, and is expressed in units of kg/m². Medical professionals, fitness experts and human resources specialists all agree that BMI is no longer considered a true indicator of health. It is better to assess one’s health and fitness levels by a combination of health diagnostic tests, exercise, keeping stress levels low and adequate sleep. To all this, if you add BMI, then you’re getting somewhere.
While admitting that BMI alone was deployed as an indicator of health in the past, “nowadays we have seen that of the two patients with the same BMI, one may be healthy and the other may not be,” says Dr. Sukhvinder Singh Saggu of CK Birla Hospital in Delhi. Saggu says tracking one’s body composition, especially the fat to muscle ratio is a better way of measuring health.
Incentivising health goals by linking them to financial rewards is a tried and tested practice in the corporate world, and can work well. Linking bonus pay to fitness goals is useful for people who are already inclined toward achieving larger fitness goals, says Naresh Krishnaswamy, business head, Cult.fit. They run employee wellness programmes for several organisations.
“This entire process should also be fun and exciting. Once employees achieve this goal it is important that they get rewarded for their efforts. Organizing regular engagement activities around habit building, leisure, and focusing on stress management, nutrition and sleep add to the programme’s effectiveness. For this, the leadership team needs to lead by example,” says Krishnaswamy.
But when you incentivise weight loss (reducing BMI is basically weight loss) in monetary terms across an entire organisation, without taking into account your employees’ medical history or genetic predisposition to disease, you are creating a dangerous environment for your employees, warns Radhika Tonsey. She is a Mumbai-based triathlete and practitioner of homeopathy medicine.
“It is foolhardy to dangle a financial carrot linked to BMI, when science and evidence show it doesn’t work. More than anything else, this puts employees under added pressure because people need the extra cash in today’s world,” she says. “Instead, start with creating awareness among the employees, then engage with professionals to create an inclusive programme that works for all employees. Something as simple as a gym membership subsidy also works wonders. Or create a competition out of the activities the employees enjoy.”
There is a lot of focus on health and wellness these days, thanks to better awareness about the benefits of an active lifestyle. The proliferation of fitness content in the media, as well as a rise in the number of fitness-related events. Compelling evidence from comprehensive studies now show a direct correlation between employee wellness and company health and performance. All this has forced organisations to focus on employee wellness in the last few years.
“The best workplaces today are those that include, communicate, and demonstrate by way of their programmes the importance of wellness. Employee wellness directly impacts productivity and performance and enables employees to bring their best self to work,” says Samrat Sarkar, director of human resources at Boston Scientific India. Cult.fit, which engages with many companies that link bonuses with fitness, has witnessed a spike in those companies’ employee productivity and engagement.
A comprehensive approach would be one that encompasses physical, emotional, and occupational health, adds Sarkar. “A wellness proposition that provides employees easy access to benefits like health checkups, risk assessments, healthcare experts, comprehensive health insurance for employees and dependents, counsellors for physical, psychological, financial and legal advice or counsel, social networks and support groups at the workplace, listening and mindfulness programmes, training for employees on wellness etc. would be one that stands out.”
In order to create a proper and effective health and wellness programme with measurable success parameters, organisations need to work with specialist doctors and fitness experts, says Tonsey.
A one-size-treatment does not fit all when it comes to health and wellness. People respond to different fitness regimes and workouts differently. Their interests can range from yoga or kickboxing to working out in a gym. “The first step to creating a customised and well-suited fitness plan is one that allows flexibility in the workout options and fits employees’ individual preferences of diet and motivation. It also should take into account where each individual stands in their fitness journey,” says Krishnaswamy.
On 24 September, Kamath set a new fitness challenge for Zerodha’s employees. “Our latest health challenge @zerodhaonline at is to give an option to set a daily activity goal on our fitness trackers. Anyone meeting whatever goal set on 90% of the days over next year gets 1 month's salary as a bonus. One lucky draw of ₹10lks as a motivation kicker. It is an optional program. Min of 350 active calories/day, in any form,” Kamath tweeted.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.