The Price of Obesity in the Workplace

The increase in obesity rates in the United States is costing every employer — and every employee. 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.

A 2012 report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts that if current obesity rates continue unabated, by 2030, 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60 percent, 39 states above 50 percent, and all 50 states above 44 percent.

Obesity is closely linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and other serious medical conditions. That represents significant costs to employers who provide health benefits to their employees and face ever-increasing health insurance premiums. In addition, all employers risk incurring obesity-related costs in the form of lower employee productivity, increased workers’ compensation claims, and other workplace issues.

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.

Additionally, a 2007 Duke University Medical Center analysis showed that obesity also drives up employers’ costs associated with workers’ compensation claims and the cost of workers’ compensation insurance, which all employers are required to carry. The study found that obese employees filed twice the number of workers’ comp claims and lost 13 times more work days from injuries and illness than did non-obese workers.

How employers can make a difference

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.

Educating employees also 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.

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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!