Weighing the Cost of Obesity

Ever since our post on health and wellness programs, the subject of obesity keeps rising to the surface in the articles that come across my desk. I’m sure it’s because obesity has become epidemic in the U.S., but it’s making me super mindful about losing those extra pounds I gained on vacation last month!

The biggest reason it continues to be a hot topic is that statistics abound on the high costs of obesity to your organization. The hard truth is that obese workers are sick 13 times as often as non-obese employees, file twice as many workers comp claims, incur 7 times the medical costs, and have more health issues such as chronic pain, knee problems, musculoskeletal issues, and injuries that create permanent disabilities. (If you want more statistics and research info, click here to read Roberto Ceniceros’ article, “Obesity Problems Weigh on Workers Comp.”)

Why is it worth discussing? Because as an employer, you can do something to help your workers and yourself! It may seem counterintuitive to have to spend money to save money, but many companies are offering perks that relate to exercise and health. As was mentioned in a recent post on company culture, one of our clients, a bicycle manufacturer, offers a bonus based on fitness. They give employees a 1.5-hour lunch break on Fridays for exercise. For every so many minutes employees spend exercising, they earn a gift card and get one bike at cost per year. Now that’s a smart move—not only do employees feel rewarded, but the employer benefits also, since research shows that fit workers make better employees!

Since the problem of obesity seems to be increasing, it’s important to get creative. Maybe you can’t afford to give all your employees a gym membership or a bicycle. But neither can you afford to do nothing! If your budget is tight, could you hang a poster about healthy eating in your staff kitchen, or bring in a local fitness expert to do a lunch-and-learn? One company we know gave all its employees pedometers to wear all day, and sponsored a contest for the most miles walked in a month.

But do be careful about how you approach your employees. According to Gregory J. Millman of the Wall Street Journal, in the summer of 2013, the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease. Formerly, for obesity to qualify as a disability, the EEOC only recognized a weight of more than 100% greater than a person’s normal body weight. It now may consider lesser obesity to be a disability. Because of this, you as an employer are more likely to be sued for discrimination. If corporate wellness programs prompt you to inquire about obesity, and obesity is a covered disability, the programs could spark litigation.

Even so, with your company culture in mind, be proactive and figure out the first step toward encouraging health and wellness in your organization. Hopefully, the positive attitudes will spread–and your workers comp rates will decrease!

Concerned about costs? Here’s the truth about making a bad hire…and what you can do to prevent it!

By Marcianne Kuethen

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