The Price of Obesity in the Workplace

HR & Safety

Beliefs about obesity can predict weight-loss success or failure

The increase in obesity rates in the United States has been well-documented and shown to be a major healthcare cost driver. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 36% of U.S. adults are obese (at least 20% 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%, 39 states above 50%, and all 50 states above 44%.

Cost to Employers

Obesity, which is closely linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and other serious medical conditions, is clearly detrimental to human health. It also has tangible financial costs for many others, including 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% 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% in the case of female employees and 68% in the case of male workers.

An analysis issued in 2007 by Duke University Medical Center showed that obesity also drives up employers’ costs associated with workers’ compensation claims: for example 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 nonobese workers.

“Given the strong link between obesity and workers’ compensation costs, maintaining a healthy weight is not only important to workers but should also be a high priority for employers,” said Truls Ostbye, MD, Ph.D., professor of community and family medicine at Duke.

What Can Employers Do?

Duke University researcher Eric Finkelstein recommends that employers promote healthy foods in the workplace, encourage a culture of wellness from the CEO on down, and 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.

Findings from one recent study from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business suggest that employers interested in incenting their workers to lose weight may also want to consider how 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.

“The greater the extent to which you believe it’s diet, the thinner you are on average,” says study co-author Brent McFerran, professor of marketing at Ross.

McFerran argues that the beliefs a person holds predict how he or she will approach the goal of weight loss. 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, he says, is that people tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during exercise and underestimate the number of calories in the food they eat.

He points out, for example, that a 20-ounce Java Chip Frappuccino from Starbucks, which contains 580 calories, would take the average person four hours to walk off.

“Our finding is simply that people who believe strongly in lack of exercise as the primary cause [of weight gain] rather than poor diet, tend to have higher body masses.”

Read the entire study here. Also, click here to learn how CBIA’s Healthy Connections wellness program: free to CBIA Health Connections members: can benefit your company.

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