You Can Look Forward to Playing a Workplace Version of the Hunger Games

Finding a job is hard enough these days. Then once you've got one, you've got to work your ass off while also dealing with office politics and annoying coworkers. Well, it's about to get even worse for some of you, because there's a growing trend among companies of encouraging their employees to compete in "fun" health or weight-loss competitions with each other. Sounds harmless enough—they just want you to be healthy, after all—but wait until your boss slaps a pedometer on you and starts tracking your every move in the name of "winning." Groan.

The Wall Street Journal reports an increasing number of companies are incorporating digital games and company-wide competitions that encourage their employees to exercise and to do healthy things like eat better. Terrific, because there's probably not enough competition at work already, and what most people are dying for is for their coworkers to be even more involved in their personal business. It's so nice that these employers have found a way to put even more pressure on people to perform in every aspect of their lives.

Of course, from a business perspective, it makes total sense since healthier employees cost you less money over the long run. That's probably why a recent survey found that about nine percent of companies planned to use online games as part of wellness programs by the end of 2012, and another seven percent are aiming to do so by the end of next year. Also by the end of next year, 60 percent of companies said they'd be using some kind of competition (online or otherwise) between locations or groups of employees. So get your game face on.

They sound promising, but do these corporate health games actually work? Well, there's not a huge amount of data yet that can prove anything one way or another, but apparently a few companies have early evidence that these games have led to weight loss and other health improvement.

The motivation these companies offer isn't always just the satisfaction of winning and keeping yourself healthy. Incentives sometimes are as simple as digital badges, but often they involve money or extra perks like parking spaces or even time off. Hmm, that seems a little unfair for employees who might genuinely have a health problem that prevents them from competing. Oh, sorry you have to work, Charlene. It's too bad your bad knee kept your team from winning that relay we held at lunch. Anyway, I'm off to the beach for some paid vacay!

As nefarious as it does sound, some companies report that employees are getting into it. Last fall, a Samsung semiconductor plant in Austin, Texas, did a weeklong walking contest where people walked in teams. It was such a hit that they're probably going to do it again as part of an "Olympics-style matchup," that they say will involve "relay races wearing clean-room suits." Wow, sounds just like field day back in elementary school, except with a bunch of middle-aged people in khakis.

On the digital side, Deanna Gerwin, a geologist at Coeur d'Alene Mines in Idaho, enrolled in a game the company offered because she could get credit for healthy tasks she was already doing, like sleeping eight hours a night. But then she got into the competition aspect and started eating more fruits and veggies and taking 10,000 steps a day. And, on the weekends, she even logged in to do health quizzes to win more points. All of her hard work paid off, because she made it into the top ten. Nothing like the satisfaction of besting your coworkers, even if it involves taking health quizzes during your time off…

Some companies prefer to hold competitions where there's proof of an employee's work, usually in the form of pedometers or heart rate monitors. This is particularly true if the incentives being offered are of significant value. Of course, this approach has downsides. At Monsanto, they decided instead to keep their prizes small and take the employees at their word. Carolyn Plummer, a health and welfare benefits leader for the company, feared using digital devices would make employees feel like they were "being watched." She said, "The more you make it formal, the more burdensome it might feel." Wow, how surprisingly un-Big Brother of them.

Of course, it's not just pressure from employers that's involved; there's also pressure from your colleagues, particularly if it's a team-based competition. Since people are pretty much capable of ruining anything, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this gives people yet another opportunity to annoy and harass their coworkers. For instance, AOL held a walking contest this summer and some of the competitors used a message board to complain that "certain team members" were bringing the whole team down because, I kid you not, they were "not taking enough steps." Oh my God. Anyway, the company deleted the messages, and everyone relaxed once they found out that the prizes were based on individual scores. Still, good to know that all people behave like children at all times.

Even if it's not your coworkers or digital tracking devices, the simple weight of feeling like you should be participating in something you don't want to is enough to put some employees off. Even though the programs are voluntary, when there are big financial incentives or pressure from higher-ups, it's hard to say no. Debra Lieberman, who is the director of the Health Games Research national program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says, "It could be a bit of a feeling like, 'they're manipulating me,' There could be tensions between colleagues."

Uh, yes, it could feel like they're manipulating you because they ARE manipulating you! Sure, they're trying to manipulate you into doing something that's good for you, but it's still a manipulation nevertheless. And, even though they have to pay for it, due to the fucked up way we deal with health insurance in this country, your health is technically none of their business. It may seem harmless enough to encourage people to get out and go for walks, but when you turn it into a competition with actual financial rewards and possible consequences for your relationships with colleagues, it very quickly becomes a slippery slope. If we keep going in this direction, will we someday, far into the future, find ourselves having to play out some corporate twist on The Hunger Games? Probably, because you know what's even cheaper than paying for health insurance for a bunch of employees? Only paying for health insurance for one of them. Hope you have what it takes to succeed.

Pitting Employees Against Each Other … for Health [Wall Street Journal]

Image via Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.