Employers Play Critical Role in Tackling Obesity

July 8, 2004
Corporate America has a responsibility to the health of its workforce and the health of its bottom line to address workforce obesity, says UnumProvident, a leading provider of disability income protection insurance.

"American workers are spending more time at work today than in recent history," says Ken Mitchell, vice president of Corporate Return to Work Development at UnumProvident. "Labor and manufacturing jobs are declining, technology and sedentary jobs are increasing. As our time at work increases and our physical activity declines, we're becoming a workforce of desk potatoes."

UnumProvident reports a tenfold increase over the past decade in short-term disability claims attributed to obesity, based on research using the company's disability database. An employer's costs associated with these claims are staggering: Disability expenses, direct costs and co-morbid medical costs, where obesity is a contributing factor, combine for an annual cost average of $51,023 per claimant. Nationwide, obesity will cost employers $13 billion per year, reports the National Business Group on Health's Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity.

The work site can be an effective part of an overarching public health approach for the prevention and treatment of obesity as large numbers of people can be reached at relatively low cost, says Robert Anfield, MD, vice president and medical director at UnumProvident. "Diet and exercise are the central tenets of weight management, and today's employers should help ensure that employees can practice healthy habits while at work," Anfield says. Mitchell and Anfield advocate a number of best practices for employers to consider, including:

  • Provide healthy lunch and snack options. Office snack machines and corporate cafeteria menus should provide a variety of low calorie, low fat and/or low carbohydrate choices. "Lunch lines featuring deep fried or fatty foods, or snack machines full of candy bars and chips, do little to encourage healthy habits," Anfield says. "Employers should make a point of providing healthy alternatives and move the fat-laden fast foods to the side."
  • Offer weight control classes and nutrition programs. Local hospitals, universities and weight-loss organizations make excellent partners in the battle of the bulge, says Jen Gresly, manager of Wellpower, UnumProvident's wellness program. "Many businesses aren't large enough to devote internal resources to ongoing health education," she says. "Community health organizations or educators have the expertise and are Encourage activity. "Most employees view the stairwells as a place only to venture in an emergency drill," Anfield says. "But taking the stairs for one or two flights provides a nice little burst of activity that adds up over the course of a day." Employers can encourage use of the stairs by ensuring that stairwells are well lighted, ventilated, safe and inviting.
  • Partner with a fitness center. Adding a workout facility on campus or partnering with a community facility can save employers hundreds of dollars per employee in healthcare expenses. On average, an employee who participates in comprehensive health promotion activities at work, i.e. health assessment and physical activity, saves their employer $212 in healthcare expenses over non-participants, according to the November 2003 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
  • Provide employee assistance programs. Some employees may prefer to keep their health issues separate from work. An employee assistance program can be an effective portal to private counseling or community-based weight management programs.
  • Offer incentives. "Some companies with successful health initiatives offer employees an incentive to participate," Mitchell says. "Some offer a discount on employee contribution to healthcare premiums, while others may offer to pay for 50 percent of costs associated with joining a fitness facility."

Each employee is responsible for his or her own well being, Mitchell says, but adds, "Through the development of a corporate work/health culture that is committed to wellness, employers will see reduced absenteeism and health costs, while increasing overall productivity."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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