The Chainlink

Trek Bicycle Head John Burke Says Obese, Unhealthy Workers Bad for Business

By Lizzie Schiffman on February 27, 2014 6:41am

THE LOOP — John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp., had a blunt message for Chicago business leaders Wednesday: Obese and unhealthy workers are bad for the bottom line.

Obesity "isn't just a government issue. It's a company issue and it's a personal issue," Burke said Wednesday before 400 people at an Executives' Club of Chicago meeting at the Fairmont Chicago.

From higher health insurance costs to less productivity, he said, overweight and unhealthy workers can hurt a company's bottom line. So the president and son of Trek's co-founder isn't shy about telling workers when they need to slim down, both in person and his blog, which talks about the "brutal honesty" necessary to get workers to shape up.

"If you're not going to care about your health, then Trek is not going to pay for it," said Burke, whose Waterloo, Wis.-based company is the largest bike manufacturer in the country.

Burke practices what he preaches: he rode more than 6,000 miles on his bicycle last year and was also the chairman of former President George W. Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He's also completed four marathons and two Ironman triathlons.

To help employees stay healthy and keep the weight off, Burke on Wednesday outlined the mandatory eight-step wellness program he recently introduced at the 1,000-employee company, which he said has "changed lives."

Wellness programs have become increasingly more common. Chicago Public Schools teachers and other workers in the city are now required to take part in a similar program that increases insurance premiums from those who fail to undergo health screenings, for example.

The steps at Trek include removing most unhealthy foods from cafeterias and implementing a "Twinkie tax" on less-than-healthy products like Diet Coke that remain on the shelves, a weight-loss competition "similar to the 'Biggest Loser'" that coached more than 800 employees through slim-downs and a tobacco ban on company property.

"These are eight things that you could implement at your company tomorrow," Burke said to the crowd.

The most important step, Burke said, was making participation in the health-risk assessment program a requirement to get health insurance through his global company.

"If I could, I wouldn't pay for any of it," he said, referring to health insurance costs for employees who aren't conscientious about their health.

"But there are laws so you can only bring it down, and every year those laws get a little bit better and I keep ratcheting it down. Because seriously, if people don't care about their health, why should companies be paying for it? And that's the change that we made."

"We've reduced our costs. Have we reduced them as much as we've hoped to? No, but they've trended down."

What the company has successfully reduced is many employee's waistlines. Burke recounted two instances where he personally confronted employees with concerns about their healthy. One man weighed 300 pounds and was preparing for hip replacement when Burke urged him to join the wellness program.

"Twelve months later he weighed 224 pounds, with zero hip replacements," Burke said.

After calling another employee into his office to voice concerns about his weight, the "shorter guy," who "weighed 240 pounds on that day ... weighs 190 pounds today," Burke said, and recently competed in an uphill cycling race.

"Go back to your companies and make a difference," he said. "Don't wait for the government, don't wait for your employees. Show some leadership."

Burke also touted how bicycle commuting could ease some of the city's notorious traffic jams.

"If you didn't notice, you live in a  very congested city," he said. "Biking can have a huge impact on congestion."

He pointed to countries like Holland, where 35 percent of trips are made by bicycle, and Denmark, where the number is 25 percent. Congestion is far less there, and residents healthier.

"In the United States it's 1.2 percent and 40 percent of those cars are going two miles or less. To me that's an amazing opportunity for the bike," he said.

"Instead of having 1 percent of trips on bikes in Chicago, if that number was 25 percent, what would happen? Congestion would be slashed. The health of people in Chicago would skyrocket. You would see a great environmental improvement.

"When you see thousands of bikes you see an energy, you see the vibrancy of the city. The city really comes to life."

http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140227/loop/trek-bicycle-head-john...

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"If I could, I wouldn't pay for any of it," he said, referring to health insurance costs for employees who aren't conscientious about their health.

"But there are laws so you can only bring it down, and every year those laws get a little bit better and I keep ratcheting it down. Because seriously, if people don't care about their health, why should companies be paying for it? And that's the change that we made."

This statement really hits me as being fat shaming. 

Someone can be obese but have otherwise healthy lifestyle (not smoking, drinking in moderation, exercising, eating nutritionally balanced meals) and be just as "healthy" as anyone else.  I'm hoping this metric of their takes that into account when deciding how much more someone has to pay for insurance. 

http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/12/31/evidence-that-fat-p...

"A One Wellness program. We created a targeted program for high risk employees that includes fitness, nutrition, wellness classes, lab checks, and regular meetings with physicians."

This program also worries me.  Its really not my employers business to tell me that because I'm at "risk" I have to submit to constant screening or face an increase in premiums.  

What other "self inflicted" illnesses are next? 

I'm all for the fitness center, healthy food options, and smoke free campus, but targeting specific people and placing the emphasis on weight seems very discriminatory to me. 

Liz W. Durham said:

Sounds like he is upfront and direct regarding his concerns about the healthiness of his employees. I really didn't see any direct quotes from him in this article to suggest he is "fat shaming". And while the author of the article uses the phrase "personally confronted," please note those are the author's words, not John Burke's.

I think it is fantastic that his company has implemented a serious wellness program with what sounds like many positive components. I have to say, I can also understand an employer who pays a significant amount towards employee health insurance might feel justified in implementing wellness programs at the workplace.

I'm guessing they don't mind, but isn't it a HIPAA violation to be talking about medical details of any of his employees?

I am pretty sure that since he is not a healthcare provider (and presumably therefore does not have a confidential relationship with the mentioned employees) it is not a HIPAA violation, but I think it is in poor taste.

Good point.  (And it definitely is in poor taste, at best).

I've only owned a single Trek over the years; reading this has pretty much guaranteed that I won't be buying one new any time soon. 

Nançois 8.5 said:

I am pretty sure that since he is not a healthcare provider (and presumably therefore does not have a confidential relationship with the mentioned employees) it is not a HIPAA violation, but I think it is in poor taste.

Isn't this the guy who screwed Greg LeMond so as to make more money?  I have no reason to listen to what he says or expect good intentions.


It's a bit more tricky than that.  Weight is a protected class in in the state of Michigan and a few select cities--and, ironically enough, Madison, WI (which Trek is around 20 miles from) is one of those cities where weight is specifically a protected class.  

In the rest of the country, there are various ways to tie weight discrimination into a protected class.  For example, the EEOC has won a few enforcement actions against employers who discriminate against the morbidly obese under the standard that morbid obesity falls under the ADA as a disability.  Also, how you enforce weight standards could end up subjecting you to discrimination claims in relation to traditional notions of protected class.  For instance, if you pull aside more women then men--or have a different standard of what constitutes a weight problem between women and men--all of the sudden you now fall under gender discrimination.  

Put simply, any ceo that thinks it is a good policy to pull aside people he feels have a weight problem and confront them regarding their future at the company is opening themselves up to some substantial (and avoidable) risk.   


Christine (5.0) said:

Weight isn't a protected class, though.

What I see is a CEO who sees a problem (American obesity hurting the bottom line of his company) and taking pro-active steps to change it (talking to two employees makes interesting sound-bite news, but the interesting, actually helpful programs are things like improving the healthiness of cafeteria food).  As Davis said, there's more to weight loss than "eat less, fatty."  And I'm happy that a company is taking steps to make it more convenient for their employees to live a healthier lifestyle.

ad said:

Wellness programs are well and good, and I think companies that come up with inventive ways to encourage employees to pursue more active/healthier lives should be applauded, but actively pulling aside workers as the CEO and "personally confronting" them regarding their perceived health (i.e., weight) problem is a good way to walk your company straight into a discrimination lawsuit.  



clp said:

"No food tastes so good...as it feels to be THIN!"

It might be too much to ask you from not trolling but using slogans from pro-anorexic sites is in decidedly bad taste. 

Did your employer call you fat and held you personally responsible for the company's rising health care costs?

clp said:

Despite Davis Moore's name-calling, I've definitely benefited from some honest discussion about my weight á la John Burke.   [...]

How so?

Davis Moore said:

Trek bikes are shit anyway.


What I love is that by using that chart, I am exactly the perfect weight.  Great, right??  That's all I have to worry about.  Never mind the fact that I have a cholesterol level that requires medication--despite the fact that I engage in a decent amount of physical activity and watch what I eat.

Weight is only part of a much, much bigger story (especially when we're talking about people being slightly above their recommended weights), though I doubt you care to figure out what that story really is.   

clp said:

Despite Davis Moore's name-calling, I've definitely benefited from some honest discussion about my weight á la John Burke.  For instance, take a look at these newly-published weight tables.  And then determine your bone thickness and Frame size by encircling your wrist at its narrowest point with your thumb and middle finger.  If your thumb overlaps your middle finger, you are SMALL framed, with delicate bones.  And your recommended weight would be read from the SMALL Frame chart.

For example, if you are a 5'10" tall man you should weigh a MAXIMUM of 154lbs.  A 5'5" woman should weigh a maximum of 130lbs.  If your thumb and middle finger only touch, you get to use the MEDIUM frame charts, and if they don't touch at all, you can use the LARGE frame chart.

Using these charts, I was forced to admit that I was 25lbs overweight...almost obese!  And since this discovery a couple years ago, I've changed my eating habits entirely, lost 30lbs permanently, and feel MUCH more alive and healthy.  Thanks John Burke, and the few others who are brave enough to discuss weight on a personal level.

"No food tastes so good...as it feels to be THIN!"


Davis Moore said:   Read this series, Bad Blood, from 2006 NYTimes to get a better picture of what is systemically undergirding the obesity related disease crisis and you see that successful preventative care is a loser in our current system.
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/09/nyregion/nyregionspecial5/09diabe...

Ah, so this is less an issue with the bikes and more an issue with you.

Glad we could clear that up.

Davis Moore said:

Because I don't like 'em. Ex post facto, they are shitty.

notoriousDUG said:

How so?

Davis Moore said:

Trek bikes are shit anyway.

That statement really reminds me of another tasteless CEO statement on health case costs.  Tim Armstrong of AOL blamed 2 "distressed" babies for the rising health care costs that are leading to a reduction in 401k benefits.  


http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/02/tim_armstron...
Davis Moore said:


And this: 

"If I could, I wouldn't pay for any of it," he said, referring to health insurance costs for employees who aren't conscientious about their health.

"But there are laws so you can only bring it down, and every year those laws get a little bit better and I keep ratcheting it down. Because seriously, if people don't care about their health, why should companies be paying for it? And that's the change that we made."

This is an asshole thing to say. What's the next "preventable health issue" for John Burke to decide is his employees responsibility and not his? That his insurance shouldn't cover medical care for an employees child with a condition, because the family knew there was a predisposition for it in their genes. "Hey, I didn't tell them to have a kid when they knew they were high risk! That hurts my bottom line!" So yeah, I'm going to call him an asshole. Asshole.



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