Obesity in the Workplace and What it Means for You

Obesity in the workplace is a relatively new phenomenon following a rapid increase in the percentage of U.S. residents considered obese during the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the obesity rate has slowed. Currently, the percentage of Americans considered obese hovers around 33%. However, obesity is associated with a number of health concerns that directly affect workers struggling with this condition. Obesity in the workplace also cost U.S. business owners and tax payers nearly $13 billion each year.

What is Obesity?
In order to better understand this serious health condition, it is best to start by defining the term. Those suffering from obesity are between 30 and 40 pounds overweight; that is, 20% heavier than the expected weight for a given age. Those with 60 extra pounds are considered severely obese and people weighing 100 pounds more than their ideal weight are classified as morbidly obese. Although rare, those who are more than 200 pounds overweight are considered super obese.

A number of serious health issues are also associated with or exacerbated by obesity. These include type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension, some types of cancer, breathing problems, gall bladder disease, and premature death. To put these health risks into perspective, the chronic conditions associated with being obese are akin to aging 20 years. Moreover, those who are obese have 30 to 50% more health problems than heavy smokers and drinkers. Being obese also has an economic impact, with medical expenses for related illnesses soaring to more than $140 billion in 2008 alone. For obese people, medical costs averaged nearly $1,500 more than those paid by people of normal weight in 2008.

The Economic Impacts of Obesity in the Workplace
These economic and health impacts are particularly evident in the workplace. First, obese employees tend to be less happy, less healthy, and less productive than their lighter colleagues. In addition, the medical conditions associated with obesity mean larger workers take more time off than their normal weight counterparts. In fact, obesity has resulted in nearly 40 million days of work being lost. Because of obesity, nearly 240 million work days involve activity restrictions and 63 million visits have been made to doctors’ offices.

As might be expected, obese employees also make more use of their health insurance. Annual health costs for obese workers are 11% higher than those for their colleagues at a normal weight, with over 75% more being spent on medication and nearly 50% more being spent on medical expenses totaling more than $5,000. In terms of business expenses, obesity among workers in U.S. corporations costs over $10 billion each year. The largest portion of this expense comes from health care costs for obese workers, totaling nearly $8 billion dollars per year. The cost of paying for sick leave, life insurance, and disability insurance rounds out the cost of employing obese workers at $2.4 billion, $1.8 billion, and $1 billion per year, respectively.

What Are Employers Doing?

Considering the staggering economic costs and serious health risks associated with obesity, what are employers doing? Many companies are actively trying to increase the amount of physical activity their employees engage in everyday in order to counteract the effects of obesity. For example, some employers post signs near the elevators recommending employees use the stairs. On-site fitness areas are a great help. Employees can participate in a number of fitness programs during their lunch hour or immediately after work, without having to travel to a gym or pay a membership. Where on-site facilities are not an option, employers are offering information regarding local exercise facilities and providing nutritional information in the cafeteria to help employees make informed choices.

What More Can Employers Do?
Looking to the future, there is still much to do to combat the effects of obesity in the workplace. Employers can offer incentives programs to help motivate their employees to participate in fitness and nutrition programs. This is a great way to reward those who take action without punishing those who may not feel motivated or who may feel discriminated against due to their weight. Employers can also offer discounts on local fitness programs, organize nutrition and weight management seminars, and offer healthier choices in the cafeteria and in vending machines. Considering the huge expense of providing medical care for the obese, employers may also offer incentives to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight in order to encourage those who are obese or overweight to be proactive. Any incentives program should be accompanied by information regarding counseling and mentoring to help employees reach their weight loss goals safely.

The Effect of Obesity in the Workplace
Having considered the risks of obesity and some of the ways in which employers can fight this epidemic, it is also useful to take a step back and consider the effect obesity has on the business owner and employees alike. While taking action against obesity is important, it must be done with some finesse. Larger employees may feel discriminated against because of their weight, resulting in a hostile work environment. This is to be avoided at all costs. While some forms of obesity may be largely predicated by lifestyle choices, certain conditions like thyroid gland problems or hereditary factors, can affect one’s weight. Thus, it is important to treat obesity with a certain degree of sensitivity and encourage good behavior without punishing those who chose not to participate.

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