Employers Cite Obesity as Workplace Health Challenge

Report identifies factors necessary for program success

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Nov 11, 2013

High costs and wide prevalence make obesity one of the top health challenges for U.S. employers, who need help figuring out how to aid workers in managing their weight, according to a report by the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH). The organization is a nonprofit coalition of 200 employers, providers and insurers working to improve health care value and reduce cost.

Key findings of the report, Weight Control and the Workplace, include the need for individually customized programs and the importance of including employees in the design and rollout of such programs.

Overweight employees cost U.S. businesses more than $73 billion each year and are at risk for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other chronic illnesses, the report states.

A majority of employers identified “employees’ poor health habits” as one of their top three challenges to maintaining affordable health coverage. In response, companies are trying strategies ranging from offering healthier cafeteria options and onsite exercise classes to comprehensive wellness programs. But they are running into trouble when it comes to handling obesity and weight management.

The report highlights key elements of a successful weight-control program:

  • Support from top executives in making wellness an organizational priority.
  • Incentives and discounts to increase employee participation.
  • Branding and marketing efforts to build trust and encourage employee participation.
  • Return-on-investment data to make a compelling business case for investments in weight-control and wellness efforts.
  • Success measures that include health outcomes and employee engagement.

Confronting the Stigma

One of the challenges employers face in engaging people in weight-control efforts is the stigma attached to being overweight or obese, the report notes.

“In order to have more frank conversations about weight and healthy habits, obesity must first be de-stigmatized and treated like any other health issue so that solutions unique to each individual can be identified,” the report states. To shine a more positive light on employee efforts, “terms such as ‘health coaches’ could replace ‘weight loss coaches.’ Nevertheless, identifying and engaging candidates for weight loss and weight control programs will remain tough challenges.”

Gallup: U.S. Obesity Rate Climbed in 2013

The adult obesity rate in the U.S. rose to 27.2 percent of the population as of November 2013, up from 26.2 percent in 2012, and were on pace to surpass all annual average obesity rates since Gallup-Healthways began tracking in 2008.

Obesity rates increased in 2013 across almost all major demographic and socioeconomic groups. The largest upticks between 2012 and 2013 were among those aged 45 to 64 and those who earn between $30,000 and $74,999 annually.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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