Special Topics in Safety Management

Obesity Costlier to Business than Smoking, Alcoholism

Helping workers deal with weight problems will improve their health—and your profitability.

Take a look around your workplace. Notice anything different? Do some of your employees seem a bit, um, bigger? Or, to put it politically incorrectly, fatter?

A study released in April by The Conference Board states that more than one-third (34 percent) of all adult Americans now fit the definition of “obese,” more than double the percentage who were in that category 30 years ago.

And your employees’ expanding waistlines have serious consequences both for their health and for your organization’s bottom line: Obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenditures and work loss.

“Employers need to realize that obesity is not solely a health and wellness issue,” says Labor Economist Linda Barrington, research director of The Conference Board Management Excellence Program and co-author of the report. “Employees’ obesity-related health problems in the United States are costing companies billions of dollars each year in medical coverage and absenteeism. Employers need to pay attention to their workers’ weights, for the good of the bottom line, as well as the good of the employees and of society.”

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The report, Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know About Obesity, examines the financial and ethical questions surrounding whether, and how, U.S. companies should address the obesity epidemic.

The Conference Board, perhaps best known for the Consumer Confidence Index and the Leading Economic Indicators, provides businesses with practical knowledge through issues-oriented research and senior executive peer-to-peer meetings.

Among the report’s more startling findings is that obesity is associated with a 36 percent increase in spending on healthcare services, more than smoking or problem drinking.

The Worth of Wellness

Other findings and advice in the report include:

  • More than 40 percent of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs, and 24 percent more said they plan to do so in 2008.
  • Estimates of ROI for wellness programs range from zero up to $5 per $1 invested. ROI aside, these programs may give companies an edge in recruiting and retaining desirable employees. Others, however, say it may be more effective just to award employees cash and prizes for weight loss rather than devote resources to long-term wellness programs.

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  • Employers need to weigh the risks of being too intrusive in managing obese employees against the risks of not managing them. There is evidence that as weight goes up, wages go down. Employers should be fully aware of any potential discrimination risk before addressing employees’ weight, whether for the employee’s own good or that of the company.
  • On the issue of whether it is in an organization’s best interest to pay for employees’ weight-loss surgery, the jury is still out. While obese employees medically eligible for bariatric surgery (about 9 percent of the workforce) have sharply higher obesity-related medical costs and absenteeism, some say companies are unlikely to recoup surgery costs before these employees have left for other jobs.
  • How employers communicate a wellness or weight-loss program is as important as how they design it. Companies should involve employees in planning health initiatives, rather than working from the top down, and should make sure personal privacy is protected.

One of the many health issues associated with obesity—and one of the most serious—is the increased risk of heart attacks. Tomorrow we’ll focus on some practical training tips to help your employees reduce their risk.


1 thought on “Obesity Costlier to Business than Smoking, Alcoholism”

  1. Yesterday we looked at the growing problem of obesity in America, and at its serious consequences for your employees’ health and your organization’s bottom line. Today we’ll focus on the related issue of heart attacks, and how you can help your employees

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