Obesity Becomes Supersized Issue for Employers

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 15, 2008

Obese employees cost U.S. private employers about $45 billion annually in medical expenses and work loss, according to a new report, Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know about Obesity.

Released April 9, 2008, by The Conference Board, it examines the financial and ethical issues surrounding whether—and how—U.S. companies should address the problem.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher and is a measure of body fat based on an adult man or woman’s height and weight. It is an issue that keeps popping up for employers. Today, 34 percent of American adults are considered obese.

An academic report in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, for example, links obesity with significantly higher limitations in the time workers need to complete tasks and their ability to meet physical work demands.

Another report, published in the April 3, 2008, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, links obese pregnant women to a greater use of health care services and longer hospital stays. That study comes from the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Center for Health Research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has estimated the cost of obesity on U.S. employers at $13 billion annually.

RTI International, a North Carolina-based research institute, has created an Obesity Cost Calculator that determines the cost of obesity to an organization based on absenteeism and medical costs, and has a module that can be used to estimate savings based on certain benefits.

It will be made available to the public on the CDC web site. Members of the National Business Group on Health (NGBH) can assess it on the NBGH web site.

“Employers need to realize that obesity is not solely a health and wellness issue,” said Linda Barrington, labor economist and co-author of The Conference Board report. “Employees’ obesity-related health problems in the United States are costing companies billions of dollars each year in medical coverage and absenteeism,” she said in a press release.

It’s not a problem limited to the United States—it affects more than 300 million people worldwide, the report says. However, it found U.S. chief executives showed more concern about health care costs than their counterparts in Asia and Europe, and it is an issue that could have “possible implications for international competitiveness.”

In 2006, almost 14 percent of U.S. CEOs said obesity was as much of a health care benefits concern as smoking, and more of a concern than drug or alcohol abuse, according to that year’s Conference Board CEO Challenge Survey.

“Employers need to pay attention to their workers’ weights,” Barrington pointed out in a press release, “for the good of the bottom line as well as the good of the employees and of society.”

Among The Conference Board findings:

  • There’s a 36 percent spending increase in health care services associated with obesity—more than smoking or problem drinking.
  • More than 40 percent of U.S. companies have implemented obesity reduction programs; another 24 percent plan to do so in 2008.
  • Return-on-investment estimates for wellness programs range from $0 to $5 per every $1 invested. Such programs might give organizations a recruiting and retention edge.
  • Awarding cash/extra vacation days/insurance rebates for weight loss might be more effective than devoting resources to long-term wellness programs, some think. Others see turnover as a disincentive to invest in prevention and treatment programs.
  • How employers communicate a wellness or weight loss program is as important as the program design. Involve employees in the planning, protect personal privacy and keep program participation voluntary.

Supporting a Healthy Weight Culture

Some low-cost ways to influence a healthy work culture, according to the report:

  • Require vendors to include bottled water in soda machines.
  • Serve only healthy foods, such as fresh fruit, whole grains and raw vegetables, at catered meetings.
  • Include fresh fruit along with dessert options in the company cafeteria, and charge more for unhealthy foods.
  • Sponsor physically active community fundraisers such as charity walks and runs.
  • Support team sports such as bowling and golf as well as the traditional company softball team to attract employees of all fitness levels.
  • Provide bike racks or discounts for bicycle parking slots at local garages to encourage health-friendly, and eco-friendly, transportation options.
  • Work with local health and weight loss clubs to obtain employee discounts.
  • Encourage employees to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Sprint Corp. added slower elevators at its Kansas headquarters.
  • Suggest conducting small group meetings while walking around the block.

The report contains three employer case studies, including New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group.

Scorecards for its managers and supervisors are linked directly to their pay incentives; they include a wellness metric that reflects their participation in the company’s health and wellness programs.

Its programs include Weight Watchers, annual cardiovascular screenings, lipid profiles, health fairs, health coaching, on-site fitness centers and health and performance assessments that include range-of-motion and grip strength tests.

The report touches on the “the specter” that looms around obesity.

Federal law does not prohibit weight discrimination, but some racial and ethnic groups show a higher prevalence of obesity than other groups, and complaints of weight discrimination have been lodged, the report pointed out.

Among obesity-related employer best practices recommended in the report: review job descriptions to make sure any weight requirements are reasonably related to the essential job requirements; develop internal policies mandating courteous treatment of all workers regardless of appearance; and educate all employees, especially managers, on what is inappropriate, unprofessional or illegal conduct toward overweight employees.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.


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