The obesity epidemic has been growing in the United States for some time. Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 66% of U.S. adults are either overweight (body mass index, or BMI, of 25.0-29.9) or obese (BMI of 30.0 or more). Rates also are rising among members of tomorrow’s workforce: Children and teens. Among children ages 2-5 years, 13.9% are obese; ages 6-11, 18.8%; and ages 12-19, 17.4%. The rate of individuals with morbid obesity — a BMI of 40.0 or more — has grown to the point that in 2007 an estimated 205,000 individuals had bariatric surgery, according to the American Society for Bariatric Surgery.
It is well known that obesity is associated with a long list of health concerns: High blood pressure, diabetes, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and respiratory problems, and some types of cancer (endometrial, breast and colon). Therefore, findings reported in a recent Conference Board release, Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know About Obesity, should come as no surprise. According to the report, obesity is associated with a 36% increase in spending on health care services, more than smoking or drinking. Obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenses and work loss.
In response, more than 40% of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs for employees, the report states, and 24% more are planning to do so. But, according to the report, employers need to weigh the risks of being too intrusive in managing obese employees against the risks of not managing them.
Employer initiatives can range from implementation of wellness programs to making simple changes in the workplace designed to help employees be more active and eat healthier. The Conference Board notes that estimates of return on investment (ROI) for wellness programs range from zero to $5 for every $1 invested in such a program. In addition to ROI, wellness programs can give a company an edge when it comes to retention and recruiting.
Regardless of your budget, there are steps your company can take in your workplace to fight the obesity epidemic head-on, and to lessen the toll it’s taking on your bottom line. Short of building an onsite fitness center, you can:
- Encourage employees to get moving on the job. Discourage elevator use by making stairwells attractive or by using them as a place to post employee photos, brief interesting news articles, or funny anecdotes and comics. Ask employees to gather for an afternoon break, and play 10 minutes of salsa music with someone leading the moves, followed by a piece of fruit for everyone.
- Install bike racks in preferred parking positions or permit employees to house their bikes inside the building during the workday.
- Stock vending machines with water and healthy snacks. If your company has a cafeteria, be sure that the menu includes a salad bar and predominantly fresh, low-fat food choices.
- Sponsor a company softball or soccer team. Encourage employees to sign up and participate as a group in fundraising walks or runs that take place in your community.
- Arrange to make a program like Weight Watchers at Work available at your worksite.
- Offer incentives for employee participation in health risk assessments.
- Check with any local gyms or fitness facilities for the availability of group discounts for your employees.
- Finally, your company probably already pays for health benefits, so check to see what wellness, nutrition and/or fitness programs are provided by or covered under the plan. Become an active partner with your health benefits carrier in marketing any of these offerings to your employees.
Though national rates of obesity are growing, you can buck the trend in your workplace — it just takes initiative and a few creative ideas to get started. Your employees’ health — and your company’s bottom line — will be better off as a result.