Catering to employee appetites for good nutritional health

It’s July already — how’s that diet going? If you’re like most Americans, you may be a few pounds heavier than you’d like, or have a specific goal in mind. That could be sliding effortlessly into a favorite dress or suit, comfortably wearing your bathing suit or bikini in public, or reconnecting with the jeans that used to fit you like a glove!

Many of us could stand to lose a few pounds. Nobody knows better than we do how we feel — and look — at optimum weight. Maybe the stairs or trails are getting tougher to climb, or that brisk walk across the shop floor or mall parking lot leaves us huffing a bit. Or, of greater consequence, our blood sugar, cholesterol counts or blood pressure is higher than recommended by our physicians.

If we are managing a business, we’re trying to keep ourselves, our workers and our bottom line healthy. But it isn’t easy. Every day we hear staggering statistics about the toll heart disease, diabetes, cancer, failing joints and respiratory illnesses take on Americans. Anybody afflicted with these chronic diseases or conditions knows how it affects their quality of life — and their pocketbooks. But it’s also costing employers billions of dollars annually in lost productivity, sick time, worker’s compensation, disability, safety and quality.

More times than not, the culprit — directly or indirectly — is obesity or a combination of poor diet, bad eating habits and lack of exercise. It’s aggravated, of course, by genetics, stress, age, poverty and access to good healthcare and nutritional information.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese (at least 20 percent above their ideal weight), and current estimates of the medical cost of adult obesity range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion annually — more than alcohol — and smoking-related costs combined.

Medical expenses for obese employees are estimated to be 42 percent higher than for those with a healthy weight, says the CDC. Costs related to medical expenses, however, don’t necessarily account for the lion’s share of the financial burden on employers.

A 2010 study by Duke University researchers found that obesity among full-time employees costs U.S. employers more than $73 billion per year. The investigation considered three factors in determining costs: Employee medical expenditures; lost productivity on the job due to health problems (presenteeism); and absence from work (absenteeism). Presenteeism was found to account for most of the total cost — as much as 56 percent in the case of female employees and 68 percent in the case of male workers.

When workers aren’t feeling well, they don’t perform well…or at all. Quality, productivity and safety decline, and other workers and customers feel the pain, as well.

So, what to do? You can’t follow your employees around watching what and when they eat or exercise. You also can’t discriminate against them for being heavy, or offer incentives or competitions that punish those who can’t lose weight successfully. What you can do is provide access to informational tools on nutrition and healthy eating. You can invite specialists to come counsel your workforce. You can sponsor healthcare screenings where employees’ Body Mass Index (BMI) is determined and discussed, and where medical professionals can screen for cholesterol, sugar, high blood pressure and other issues.

Educating employees plays a beneficial role in promoting healthy weight consciousness. This is especially important when you consider that individuals’ beliefs about the causes of obesity affect weight-loss success or failure.

Researchers found that whether a person believes obesity is caused by overeating or a lack of exercise can predict whether he or she will gain or lose weight. People who believe obesity is caused by diet will focus on consuming less food, while those who believe the cause is lack of exercise will work out more. The problem is that people tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during exercise and underestimate the number of calories in the food they eat.

Employers can help themselves and their employees by encouraging a culture of wellness from the top of the shop down.  The most effective solution is to provide economic and other incentives to those employees who show clear signs of improving their health via weight loss, maintaining a healthy weight, or participating in exercise programs.

Interactive options can take many forms, from healthy snacks, recipe swaps and lunches to time during the day for exercise, educational sessions and peer support. Letting employees lead the effort can pay back in creative ideas, buy-in and improved results, boosting morale and team work at the same time.

Although it may seem that only large organizations can implement obesity prevention and control programs, organizations of all sizes have done so successfully. One useful website that provides a variety of tools, ideas and resources can be found at www.cdc.gov/obesity/

Whatever you do, communicate your intentions candidly and consistently, encourage feedback, and seek guidance from experts in your community. Engage employees and their families as much as possible, and the results could help lift some, uh, weight off your shoulders!

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!