Survey: Employees and Employers Face Obesity Issue, Seek Solutions

May 23, 2008
A recent study of employer and employee attitudes about obesity demonstrates that both parties concur on one thing: Workplace weight management programs are appropriate and effective.

The survey findings, which were revealed by the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance May 22 during a Washington D.C., briefing at the National Press Club, concluded that 71 percent of employers view offering obesity-related services as appropriate and 73 percent of them also saw them as effective. Eighty percent of employees surveyed agreed that weight management programs belong in the workplace.

The alliance, which works to institute interventions to stop the obesity epidemic, commissioned the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) from the University of Chicago to conduct the survey. NORC researchers concluded the findings demonstrate that employers are willing to help their workers manage their weight. Employees, regardless of their weight, have a desire for that kind of help.

Jon Gabel, a senior fellow at NORC and the study's principal investigator, said he was surprised to discover that a large number of employees were receptive to having weight management programs in the workplace.

“I thought many employees would say that weight management programs are intrusive,” he noted.

Obesity’s Price Tag

The survey findings demonstrate that the majority of employers – 67 percent – are concerned about medical costs associated with obesity, and therefore may be willing to accept a formulaic plan to combat this health issue. In addition, 93 percent of employers said they see obesity as a preventable condition and the result of poor lifestyle choices.

“In other words, they don't see obesity as futile, or something out of one's control, but at the same time they do see it as generic components,” he said. The study showed that 11 percent of employers strongly agree that obesity is genetic in origin, while 70 percent of those surveyed “somewhat agreed” with that assessment.

Gabel cited a number of studies that examined the cost of obesity for employers, including one stating that an obese employee may require a 37 percent increase in medical expenses. “By their actions, businesses seem to be saying that regardless of whose fault it is, obesity is my company's problem. And I need to do something about it,” he said.

Gabel told after the briefing that companies demonstrated interest in incorporating a variety of weight management programs in their workplace as much as their company budget allowed. Programs and initiatives could be as complex as incorporating a company gym to simply creating awareness through education.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona was at hand at the briefing to offer his thoughts on the obesity epidemic, which currently plagues nearly one-third of the adult American population (approximately 60 million), according to American Obesity Association. Carmona, who also is a health and wellness chairperson of the STOP Obesity Alliance steering committee, said he was encouraged to know that employers are showing signs that they want to tackle the obesity issue head-on, especially with the rising costs of health care.

“The workplace is where adults spend the bulk of their time and employers can play an important role in promoting health lifestyle choices and providing options to overcome overweight and obesity,” he said.

Flexible Interventions

To help companies in this effort, two organizations, DMAA: The Care Continuum Alliance and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), joined forces to test a new prototype developed by DMAA to help employers offer workplace weight-loss options without creating a health and financial burden.

“Employers and other health care purchasers recognize the severe burden obesity places on health and productivity. But often they have piecemeal solutions to the problem,” said DMAA President and CEO Tracey Moorhead during the news conference. “This groundbreaking research provides an evidence-based approach to obesity benefits development users can adopt to fit their specific needs, budget and culture.”

The prototype, called the Value-Based Benefit Design for Obesity and Comorbidities, is a three-level package of obesity treatment strategies. Each level is supported by an underlying disease-management program for obesity and related conditions. caught up with Moorhead after the briefing to get a better sense of the prototype’s structure. She explained the first level of coverage would provide primary care physician services, professional nutritional counseling and obesity-specific drugs. A second tier would add specialized obesity care and the third level, surgical interventions.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all type of program; it's designed to tweaked so that it can cater to a variety of people in order for them to live healthier lives,” Moorhead said. She added that for an employee to be eligible for the program, they should have an overweight or obese body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher. Comorbid conditions, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, also are factored in when determining eligibility.

Union to Pilot DMAA Program

SEIU employees, many of whom are health care professionals, are piloting DMAA’s program to gauge its effectiveness. Louise Milone, administrator of SEIU's Health Care Access Trust, said the union was excited about trying out the program, not only to see how it can benefit employees, but to also to learn how successful the program can be so they can promote it to their patients and clients.

“Obesity is a huge issue for health care workers,” Milone said. “When we were trying to implement some sort of a program, what was out there, we realized was wholly inadequate. You either had nutrition for profit programs like Weight Watchers or some offered geriatric surgery, but nothing in between.”

More information about NORC's survey is available on the STOP Obesity Alliance Web site at and visit for more on the DMAA's obesity benefit prototype.

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