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It’s Time to Battle Obesity in the Workplace

People who are obese are 42% more like to require medical care than normal weight people as found by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  And the problem is getting worse:  Two-thirds of adults are now either overweight or obese. Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1980, from 6.5 percent to 16.3 percent. The proportion of all annual medical costs due to obesity increased from 6.5 percent in 1998 to 9.1 percent in 2010, the study said.  For employers, here’s the most alarming news of all: employee obesity costs U.S. employers approximately $45 billion annually, according to a 2006 estimate by the Conference Board and RTI International. 

Many experts believe that America has been slow to deal with obesity because many see it as a matter of personal responsibility. But employers can help solve the problem. By encouraging employees to slim down, your employees will be healthier and the company can reduce its healthcare costs. 

As part of the National Strategy to Combat Obesity, the non-profit Trust for America’s Health suggests employers consider the following actions: 

  • Offer Wellness and Disease Prevention Programs and Benefits. Offer employees programs and health benefits that help them stay healthy, including nutrition, physical activity, and obesity counseling; subsidize health club memberships and provide insurance discounts for preventive services. Investing in employee health not only improves productivity but also cuts down on absenteeism. 
  • Provide Opportunities for Employees to Be Active During the Day. Maintain clean, well-lit stairwells to encourage employees to take the stairs, and focus on providing healthy food options in vending machines and in cafeterias. 
  • Replace Smoke Breaks with Fitness Breaks. Encourage employees to engage in physical activity on their lunch hours and breaks. Employers have long allowed smokers to step outside for a cigarette break. Consider offering “walking breaks” instead, whereby employees can leave their desks for 10 minutes or so to walk around the office. Walking breaks can improve mental focus in addition to physical health.
  • Advocate for Prevention Services. Generally, physicians do not receive enough support, resources or reimbursement from insurance companies to prescribe preventive care for patients with chronic diseases. Employers can ask their insurers to offer plans that cover nutrition counseling, weight loss and weight management programs to decrease obesity and prevent the development of chronic diseases. 
  • Employers can do only so much, but by encouraging healthier habits in the workplace, you may see the results in the bottom line. 

The Safeway Miracle As a self-insured employer, the grocery store giant Safeway has a vested interest in keeping employee healthcare costs down. During the last four years, its per capita healthcare costs have remained flat while most American companies’ costs have increased an average of 38 percent over the same four years. 

How did Safeway do it?  

Safeway capitalized on two key insights, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. The first is that 70 percent of all healthcare costs are the direct result of behavior. The second is that 74 percent of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. 

Armed with these facts, Safeway instituted a voluntary Healthy Measures program that now covers 74 percent of the company’s insured nonunion workforce. Employees are tested for measures related to the four conditions cited above and receive premium discounts off a “base level” premium for each test they pass. Data is collected by outside parties and not shared with company management. If they pass all four tests, annual premiums are reduced $780 for individuals and $1,560 for families. 

Today, Safeway obesity and smoking rates are roughly 70 percent of the national average. When surveyed, 78 percent of Safeway employees rated their health plan as good, very good or excellent. In addition, 76 percent asked for more financial incentives to reward healthy behaviors.