Innovation Urged in Employee Weight-Control Programs

Digital connectivity and wearable technology can promote healthy outcomes

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Oct 22, 2014

One size does not fit all when it comes to effective workplace-sponsored weight control programs, according to an October 2014 report from the nonprofit Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH), an employer-led coalition.

Employers should consider adding innovative technology applications, value-based benefit designs, new prescription medications and bariatric surgery to supplement traditional healthy eating and exercise programs, advised the report, Weight Control and Employees: One Size Doesn’t Fit All.

Employers surveyed for the report put weight control/obesity among their top employee health concerns. However, less than half had a weight control initiative underway at their organization, and three-quarters were “less than satisfied” with their organization’s programs or lack thereof.

“The workplace is clearly a critical arena for delivering programs that help employees tackle weight issues while also delivering benefits to employers in the form of fewer absences, enhanced productivity and lower health costs, said Laurel Pickering, president and CEO of NEBGH, in a statement accompanying the report. “The key to greater success is recognizing that many individuals need more targeted interventions in addition to—but not as a replacement for—traditional behavioral and lifestyle offerings, and that physicians have an essential role to play in targeting those interventions.”

Digital Personalization

The report identified goal-tracking via digital connectivity (including smartphone apps and online portals) as a way of increasing participation and engagement by employees struggling with weight issues. The use of these digital tools can be personalized for individual users while also providing privacy and anonymity. Surveyed employers said that overcoming stigma, embarrassment and other emotional barriers is critical to implementing a truly effective weight control program.

Moreover, steering employees to high-value, evidenced-based care and providing health benefits coverage for clinical treatments including prescription medications and bariatric surgery can improve outcomes.

“We need to be aggressive in bringing to bear the full spectrum of therapies [for obesity], which for certain individuals means taking a closer look at the role prescription medications and bariatric surgery can play as part of multilayered interventions for targeted populations,” said Jeremy Nobel, MD, executive director of NEBGH’s Solutions Center. “Health benefit design that provides coverage for these treatments—and also uses incentives to engage employees and steer them toward physicians and centers of excellence with a proven track record of delivering good weight-control outcomes—is a potentially powerful tool in employers’ arsenals when combined with healthy eating and lifestyle modification programs.”

Wearable Tech Could Be a Game Changer

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ October 2014 report, Health Wearables: Early Days, explores wearable technology’s potential to help employees improve their health.

PwC’s Health Research Institute examined attitudes and behaviors toward fitness bands, smart watches and other wearables, finding that among adult U.S. health care consumers:

More than 80 percent said an important benefit of wearable technology is its potential to make health care more convenient.

68 percent would wear employer-provided devices that stream anonymous data to an information pool in exchange for a break on their insurance premiums.

PwC’s companion The Wearable Future report notes that more than one million customers transmit data from fitness trackers to Walgreen Co., in exchange for points that can be used like cash in the company’s stores and through its website.

For a related look at weight control and wearable tech, see the HR Magazine article Incorporating Fitness Trackers into Workplace Wellness.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMsmiller.

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