How Organizations Can Target Obesity in the Workplace

Posted May 3, 2017

The U.S. obesity epidemic is contributing to health problems that cause suffering and even premature death for millions of Americans. In addition to lowering the quality of life, obesity raises the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and several types of cancer, according to the CDC.

With these enormous health consequences, it’s no surprise obesity is associated with high health care expenditures, lost productivity and disability. In fact, the CDC reports the medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is about $150 billion annually and estimates of lost productivity due to absenteeism range between $3.38 billion and $6.38 billion a year.

Statistics from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases show 2 out of 3 American adults are now overweight and 1 in 3 are obese. So the odds are great that most organizations have employees who are significantly overweight.

While many companies have tried to target obesity in the workplace, often with nutritional education and subsidized gym memberships, most weight-loss initiatives have been ineffective. A new report from the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH), an employer-led coalition that helps employers make decisions about health care spending, concludes companies’ approaches to employee weight loss can fail because workers lack engagement due to the stigma of being overweight. In addition, organizations often are hesitant to invest in new programs to tackle workplace obesity when other approaches have failed.

However, NEBGH’s research, outlined in “Tipping the Scales on Weight Control: New Strategies for Employers,” offers proven steps employers can take to increase the odds their weight-loss initiatives for employees will be successful.

“Like other chronic diseases, obesity is best addressed through prevention, and most employers have done a good job of implementing eating and exercise programs designed to encourage healthy behaviors,” said Laurel Pickering, president and CEO of NEBGH.

“But many employees are really in need of more help, and interventions such as digital coaching, medically supervised weight loss, medications, behavioral counseling and bariatric surgery should all be considered as supplements to broader wellness programs,” she said. “Investing in these interventions through access to benefits and targeted programs can have significant payoffs in terms of improved employee population health.”

NEBGH’s report is based on interviews and a workshop attended by 40 organization leaders, primarily employee benefits and wellness professionals. Weight-control experts and executives from companies (including PSE&G, Aetna and Montefiore Medical Center) that have effective weight-management interventions for employees shared their perspectives on implementing and sustaining successful approaches to curbing workplace obesity.

Weight-loss programs that work for organizations typically offer basic interventions such as nutrition and fitness programs for all employees. However, that doesn’t mean activities and strategies aimed at controlling workplace obesity should take a cookie cutter approach applied to the entire workforce. Instead, programs should be individualized and targeted to subsets of workers identified by body mass index (BMI).

Personalized programs can help prevent obese and overweight employees from feeling stigmatized. And convenient access to appropriate weight-loss and exercise programs at work and at home geared to specific segments of employees – including those who simply need to lose a few pounds and others who are significantly overweight — is among the success factors cited in the NEBGH report. It also notes the importance of building a culture of health in an organization and advises executives, managers and other company leaders to lead by example so they don’t send mixed messages to employees.

“Despite obesity being recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association in 2013, shame and stigma still surround it, and gaps in benefits coverage for interventions such as sustained behavioral counseling, medically supervised weight loss and medication may remain,” said NEBGH medical director Jeremy Nobel, MD.

“The good news is there are employer success stories from which others can learn,” he said. “And movement in the delivery system toward more person-centered approaches to primary care makes it more likely that BMI will be taken seriously as a central health indicator, resulting in earlier and more sustained interventions to help employees avoid obesity- and weight-related comorbidities such as [type 2] diabetes, cardiovascular illness and cancer.”

NEBGH’s report suggests employers should pay attention to trends such as digital tools for weight control and also keep abreast of research on the emotional factors that need to be addressed as part of weight-control efforts. It encourages the use of on-site and near-site clinics to promote medically supervised weight loss for obese employees as well.

“Tipping the Scales on Weight Control: New Strategies for Employers” is available online for free download. — Sherry Baker