The Cost of Obesity in the Workplace

The rising prevalence of obesity in the United States has been well documented. A growing body of research also reveals the extent to which obesity is responsible for the high rates of medical expenditures faced by public and private payers. Annual medical expenditures attributable to obesity may now be as high as $147 billion per year. (Finkelstein, et al, Health Aff , 2009;28:w822-831) Although much of these costs are initially covered by private insurers, they are ultimately passed along to employers, and subsequently to employees, in the form of higher premiums, copayments and deductibles for medical services.

In addition to medial expenditures, it has been reported that increasing BMI (body mass index) is associated with increasing rates of absenteeism. There is growing evidence that obese employees are less productive while on the job, termed “presenteeism.” Presenteeism is defined as the average amount of time between arriving at work and starting work on days when the employee is not feeling well and the average frequency of engaging in five specific behaviors: losing concentration, repeating a job, working more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued at work, and doing nothing at work. Finklestein, et al. JOEM, October 2010;52. p.971) 

The collective estimate that obese workers cost U.S. employers is an additional $11.7 billion per year compared with normal weight workers as a result of increased absenteeism and presenteeism, with presenteeism accounting for roughly two thirds the cost. (Ricci, et al. JOEM, 2005;47:1227-1234)

Obviously, obesity is an epidemic problem. The workplace is not shielded from this. Practically all employers will have employees that are obese. It is in the best interest of the employer, but more importantly, the employee to live a healthy lifestyle and take steps towards that healthier lifestyle.

Common sense steps are important in the healthy lifestyle goal:

  • Decreasing caloric intake (less than 2200 calories a day),
  • Increasing water intake (6-8 glasses a day),
  • Limiting high calorie, high sugar/fat snacks,
  • Increasing levels of activity (exercising 3-5 times a week for at least 30 minutes), and
  • Getting adequate rest.

With so many adults battling weight loss issues, some employers are offering wellness and weight loss programs to employees. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans states that nearly half of all employers who offer wellness programs also offer weight loss programs in an effort to reduce the cost of health care to insurance companies.

Employees benefit from these programs by gaining knowledge of nutrition and fitness and by becoming healthier, more productive individuals. Many employee wellness and weight loss programs incorporate health fairs and newsletters into the plan to give employees knowledge of how to live a healthier lifestyle. Many employers offer healthier options in company cafeterias and snack areas. Fitness challenges, walks and company weight loss competitions give employees incentive to participate in these programs.

As an employer, your workforce will be healthier, more productive and have less absenteeism and presenteeism if healthy lifestyles are promoted and encouraged.

Interested in developing an Occupational Health program tailored to your company's needs?

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