Remember all that employer-speak about making companies leaner and more efficient?
Well, it’s about to happen. And not in the traditional way of eliminating layers of middle management and laying off unproductive workers. A new study from Duke University reveals that obesity in the work force costs employers $73 billion a year.
The survey laid the obesity cost to lost productivity from health problems, absence and employee medical expenses. It reported that workers regarded as severely obese – that is, 100 or more pounds overweight – cost more to keep on the payroll. Women in this category cost $16,900 more per capita while men in the category cost $15,500 more.
This is the type of information companies crave. It puts a dollar figure on an employee issue, which can provide the incentive for companies to fund wellness and weight-loss programs for their workers. It gives the phrase “trimming the fat” a whole new meaning in the workplace.
Some will probably protest, arguing that companies should not have a say in how workers live their lives. However, since obesity is a major cost factor for medical care and companies often provide and partially or fully fund health care insurance for their workers, companies will make it their business.
“Given that employers shoulder much of the costs of obesity among employees, these findings point to the need to identify cost-effective strategies that employers can offer to reduce obesity rates and costs for employees and families,” says the study’s lead researcher, Eric Finkenstein, deputy director of health services and systems research at Duke-National University of Singapore.
While previous estimates looked mainly at the direct health care costs of obesity, the Duke study found that “presenteeism” – lost productivity from employees trying to work despite health problems – costs employers a whopping $12.1 billion per year, nearly twice as much as their medical costs.
This gets the attention of many companies that already feel they spend too much on employee healthcare. Many that have been passively offering wellness programs will be further motivated to drive the issue with more force.
“Our study provides evidence of yet another cost of obesity,” says Finkelstein. “Employers should consider both the medical and productivity costs of obesity when thinking about investments in weight-management or other wellness programs.”
Some of this might be simply offering healthier foods in company cafeterias, or encouraging workers to participate in yoga, walking or other low-intensity health programs.
Maybe the best way for employers to have an impact is to provide incentives to their workers to lose weight. The cost of these programs will be made up with increases in productivity, a decline in absenteeism and “presenteeism,” and, eventually, in lower healthcare premiums.
It may seem intrusive to some employees or make them feel uncomfortable, but there is a precedent that when an employee-relations issue can be accurately computed into an expense item for employers, those companies will be motivated to bring about behavioral changes in their work forces.
So don’t be surprised if you see your company pushing you to be healthier. It’s in their interests, and yours as well.