Obesity Poses Massive Problem for Employers

A recent study examining the impact of an obese workforce on companies provides new reasons for employers to consider taking steps to keep their employees fit and healthy.

A new Duke University analysis found that obesity costs U.S. employers a whopping $73.1 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity, according to a report posted by ABC News.com.

Surprisingly, direct health care costs weren’t the biggest loser for employers with an obese workforce. Obese employees’ presenteeism — defined as the productivity lost when sick employees try to work -accounted for the biggest drain on employers at $12.1 billion per year, the study found. In fact, the costs of presenteeism were nearly twice that of medical costs for employers, researchers said.

The study calculated that each male or female worker with a body mass index (BMI) higher than 40 (about 100 pounds overweight) cost employers $15,500 or $16,900, respectively.

Despite the growing problem of obesity, few Americans are choosing to improve their diet, according to a separate study published in The New York Times. After decades of eat-right campaigns by federal and state governments and stricter dietary guidelines, Americans are still snubbing their vegetables. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, according to recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While these studies paint a bleak picture for America’s workforce health, some companies are working hard to make a difference — and save money — with company-sponsored programs.

One example is IBM, which instituted a special 12-week program of health-promoting activities, according to a HealthDay report. The company offered $150 to participate in the program. But they didn’t just try to recruit the employee. IBM worked to get entire families enrolled, which ultimately made a big difference in participation.

“Employers spend a lot of time thinking about how to get their employees healthy, and while the employee is an important factor, what about the family?” asked Dee Edington of the University of Michigan and an author of a study that analyzed IBM’s efforts. “When you have a sick child, you also have a sick employee. So, if you’re going to have a healthy culture, you need to think about having healthy families as well.”

In IBM’s program, families sat down, made decisions together and turned it into a family project, researchers said.

The result: More than 11,000 employees — better than half of those that enrolled — completed the program.

While the IBM case might not offer hard evidence that such programs save money, experts say any effort by employers to improve workforce health — including focusing on obesity — can make a positive difference.

“Some weight loss is likely to be associated with some health improvement. . . . It’s a continuous scale of weight and health and dollars,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.


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