button Vol. 7
No. 5



line Non-union

line Obesity In
The Workplace

line Productivity
Or Push?

line English-only

line Update On
Overtime Rules

line Briefs

Braun Consulting News
News on Personnel, Labor Relations and Benefits

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Human Resources and labor relations Obesity In The Workplace

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Checkmark Graphic The Scope Of The Problem

Obesity in the workplace IS a big problem.

It is a growing problem with repercussions that has the potential to take some companies by surprise over the next few years. The impact on the workplace goes above and beyond the impact on the individuals involved and may be a major factor in future medical plan design and cost.

It is an ever-increasing expenditure affecting the bottom line of companies everywhere. In part, this is due to the fact that as we continue to shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy work environments are becoming more sedentary every year.

A primary benefit of reducing obesity in the workplace is having happier and healthier employees. A secondary side benefit is that happier and healthier employees are more productive and take less time off because of illness relating to problems caused by being overweight.

The most startling thing about the obesity problem in the workplace is the rapid and dramatic increase over the last few years in the number of people who are becoming obese or even morbidly obese.

The number of Americans considered obese by the CDC in 2001 was 44 million - or approximately one in five. This is a 74 percent increase since 1991.

A 74 percent increase in 10 years is an alarming growth rate of 7¼% average per year.

Obesity is growing at two or three times GDP!

The percentage of U.S. adults classified as obese doubled between 1980 and 2000, from 15% to 31%. (1999 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, CDC National Center for Health Statistics).

On average one out of every three people you know and work with could be considered obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control obesity has roughly the same association with chronic health conditions as 20 years of aging.

The Surgeon General reports that more than 9 percent of the nation's health care expenditures are directly related to obesity and physical inactivity. They calculate that to cost out at about $117 billion annually and relate to 300,000 deaths per year.

To put this into context 1,000 have died in the Iraq war in a TWO year period yet we read the statistics every day. The death of 300,000 Americans (600,000 in two years) goes largely unreported.

Health risks associated with obesity include: hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, endocrine problems, gall bladder disease, lung and breathing problems, arthritis, and premature death.

UnumProvident, a provider of disability income protection insurance, reports a tenfold increase over the past decade in short-term disability claims attributed to obesity, based on research using their disability database.

Employers can play an important part in providing a healthy work environment and offsetting or reducing the financial burden to the workplace resulting from this dramatic rise in obesity.

It is the individual responsibility of employees to do their part in addressing or fighting their own obesity issues and lifestyle choices, but it is in the best interest of employers to contribute to the solution as well.

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Checkmark Graphic Some Statistics And Definitions

     - Definitions Of Obesity

  •  Obese is generally defined as at least 30 to 40 pounds overweight.
  •  Severely obese is considered to be at least 60 pounds overweight.
  •  Morbidly obese is at least 100 pounds overweight.
  •  Super obese is considered at least 200 pounds overweight.

Physicians consider a person to be obese if they weigh more than 20% above expected weight for age, height, and body build. Morbid or malignant obesity is when a person is over 100 pounds above that expected for age, height, and build.

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     - Obesity In The Workplace

  •  A study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that annual medical expenses for Dallas city employees increased from $114 for normal-weight individuals to $573 for the overweight - to $620 for the obese.

  •  Obesity is associated with 39 million lost work days; 239 million restricted-activity days; 90 million bed days; 63 million physician visits. (Current Estimates of the Economic Cost of Obesity in the United States, Obesity Research, 1998).

  •  The average absence for a worker who files an obesity-related Short-Term Disability claim is 45 days, according to MetLife.

  •  Obese individuals have higher health care utilization rates: 36 percent higher inpatient and outpatient spending 77 percent higher medication spending 45 percent more inpatient days 48 percent more expenditures over $5000 11 percent higher annual health care costs (Health Risks and Behavior: The Impact on Medical Costs, Control Data Corp, 1987).

  •  Based on research by MetLife, the CDC, and the American College of Cardiology, three main conditions related to obesity are diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease - and they cost employers more than $220 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity.

  •  At Union Pacific, 54 percent of the 48,000 employees were overweight (Oct. 2003). Reviewing injury claims and illness records, the company estimated that reducing the percentage by one point would save $1.7 million; by 5 points, $8.5 million, and by 10 percent, $16.9 million.

  •  According to the U.S. Surgeon General, in the year 2000, costs related to obesity totaled $117 billion -- $61 billion in direct costs and $56 billion in indirect costs. (Body Mass Index and Future Health Care Costs: A Retrospective Cohort Study, Obesity Research, 1988).

  •  The total cost of obesity to U.S. companies is estimated at $13 billion per year. Health insurance costs related to obesity comprise the largest percentage of the total ($8 billion), followed by paid sick leave ($2.4 billion), life insurance ($1.8 billion) and disability insurance ($1 billion). (Prevention Makes Common Cents: Estimated Economic Costs of Obesity to U.S. Business, American Journal of Health Promotion, 1998).

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         - Obesity And Health

  •  Severely obese men can expect to die 13 years sooner than men of normal weight, according to a study in January's Journal of the American Medical Association.

  •  Obesity is a greater trigger for health problems and increased health spending than smoking or drinking. Individuals who are obese have 30% to 50% more chronic medical problems than those who smoke or drink heavily. (The Effects of Obesity, Smoking, and Drinking on Medical Problems and Costs, Journal of Health Affairs, March/April 2002).

  •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that obesity kills 300,000 Americans each year. (This study was done in 2000).

  •  Every year, the typical American now consumes 149 pounds of caloric sweeteners, 54 gallons of soda and 200 pounds of mostly refined grains.

  •  Between 1977 and 1996, a typical salty snack rose from 132 calories to 225 calories; French fries from 188 calories to 256 calories; a hamburger from 389 calories to 486 calories; and a soft drink from 144 to 193 calories.

  •  Another study in 2002 indicated that 31% of Americans were obese. (Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct 2002).

  •  Nearly 2 out of 3 (64.5%) U.S. adults are overweight or obese. 35% were moderately overweight, 26% were obese or grossly overweight. (1999 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, CDC National Center for Health Statistics).

  •  For every 2-pound increase in weight, the risk of developing arthritis is increased by 9-13% (Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent & Decrease Overweight & Obesity, 2001).

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    Checkmark Graphic What Some Employers Are Doing

    In June of 2003 the Washington Business Group on Health founded the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity. This group consists of 175 large private and public-sector employers. It will propose strategies to decrease obesity among workers and help reduce the impact of weight-related conditions in the workplace.

    Here are examples of what some companies are doing:

      Checkmark graphic The CDC has encouraged its employees to use the stairways by making them more appealing, with a fresh coat of paint, new carpeting, artwork and motivational signs, and piped-in music.

      Checkmark graphic Sprint planned its 200-acre headquarters to encourage fitness by banning cars, forcing employees to park in garages some distance from the offices, putting in slow elevators and wide, windowed staircases to encourage people to walk rather than ride between floors.

      Checkmark graphic Highmark Inc., a 12,000 employee health-insurance company in Pittsburgh, offers group, personal and online weight-management programs; nutritional counseling; lo-fat meals and snacks in its cafeterias and vending machines; discounts on nutritional products and services; and an employee fitness center.

      Checkmark graphic Sparkle-People, an online coaching company in Cincinnati with 25 employees, offers access to a personal trainer and fitness center, stocks the cafe with healthy foods, and has a garden in the back of the building that produces vegetables for employee's use.

    The National Business Group on Health surveyed 84 large U.S. employers and released a report on their findings in June of 2004.

    This report noted that the most prevalent fitness initiatives employers offered were as follows:

    • 77% of companies surveyed had an on-site fitness center
    • 69% of companies surveyed had on-site fitness programs
    • 67% of companies surveyed sponsored fitness programs
    • 60% of companies surveyed provided info on local programs
    • 38% of companies surveyed had web-based tools for tracking and information

    Also notable was the fact that 61% of employers surveyed required employees to share some of the cost of their fitness initiatives, while 27% pay the entire cost, and 12% pay nothing. The same report found that 84% of companies promoted their fitness initiatives on their company intranet and about 70% also used posters, flyers and e-mail to promote their programs.

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    Checkmark Graphic What Employers Can Do About It

    Despite the benefits of weight-loss programs at work many companies have avoided them.

    They feel that they want to avoid identifying individuals who are obese because there's a perceived stigma and they have a fear of being discriminatory.

    The solution to that problem is to offer voluntary programs and incentives for those who are motivated to take part, but make sure there are no "disincentives" in place for those who are overweight.

      Checkmark graphic Make on-site programs, like Weight Watchers, available at work.

      Checkmark graphic Sponsoring or subsidizing health club memberships.

      Checkmark graphic Work with group health vendors to develop more programs to target obese populations.

      Checkmark graphic Implement a healthy eating campaign, which should include healthy options in cafeterias and vending machines.

      Checkmark graphic Encourage employees to walk outside during their lunch hour or stroll by their colleagues' offices rather than remaining at their desks and sending e-mail.

      Checkmark graphic Talk with health plan providers about the availability of employee educations materials and disease management programs.

      Checkmark graphic Provide employee assistance programs for private counseling or community-based weight management programs.

      Checkmark graphic Offer incentives, such as a discount on health care premiums.

    Employers considering implementing a targeted prevention or risk reduction program can utilize claims information from both their health care providers and disability carrier to help determine their return on investment.

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    Checkmark Graphic Risks And Rewards Of Employer Actions

    There are some issues surrounding obesity in the workplace that can be a problem for employers who are taking action, or considering taking action, to combat this costly trend.

    The main problems are the perception of discrimination and the possibility of legal action. However, the rewards often far outweigh the risks, as you will see at the conclusion of this article.

         - Risks Of Taking Action

    1. Perception by employees that an employer is discriminating against overweight people.

    Many employers fear appearing discriminatory and may be fearful in identifying individuals who are obese because they don't want to be thought of as discriminating against them.

    A study by Employment Law Alliance in November of 2003 showed that nearly half of American workers believe that overweight employees are discriminated against in the workplace.

    In the survey of 603 American employees, 47 percent believed that obese workers suffer discrimination in the workplace. Based on the results of polls and surveys like these, some lawyers are predicting an increase in the efforts by employees to have discrimination claims legally recognized on a broader scale because of the "perceptions" of discrimination.

    Though the voluntary health improvement programs we refer to in this article can do a lot to help the problem of obesity, there is a component of obesity that can be linked to hereditary factors. Researchers believe that in most cases obesity represents a complex relationship between genetic, psychological, physiological, metabolic, socioeconomic, lifestyle, and cultural factors.

    Considering all of these factors there is a concern that companies attempting to tackle this problem may become embroiled in discrimination issues, whether real or perceived.

    2. Actual anti-weight-discrimination laws.

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that everyone in the United States has a right to employment free from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 7 has been used in weight discrimination cases where weight standards are applied differently to different protected classes (e.g. women and men), and where weight standards have an adverse impact on a protected class.

    The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against an otherwise qualified individual with handicaps, solely on the basis of that handicap, in any program which receives federal assistance.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) extends the protection against discrimination on the basis of disability to the private sector.

    State of Michigan: Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, Act 453 of 1976, Sec. 209, bans discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, age sex, height, weight, or marital status. (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 37.2102, 1985 & Supp. 1993).

    3. Lack of participation in the programs.

    Though not actually a "risk", one of the biggest challenges facing companies is getting workers to take advantage of fitness programs and other efforts at reducing obesity.

    Two-thirds of companies surveyed by the National Business Group on Health reported that fewer than 25 percent of their workers participated in their fitness programs. Three out of ten reported that 25 and 50 percent of workers participate and 2 percent said that more than half of their work force participated.

    So some companies worry that hardly anyone will participate and that it might not be worth the effort or "risk".

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         - Rewards For Taking Action

    1. Improvement of the health and productivity of employees.

    Employees who are overweight and loose weight usually feel better and work better. Participating employees quality of life is improved and the quality of their work can improve as well. A healthier employee is usually a happier employee.

    2. Increase in morale of employees.

    In the recent poll by the National Business Group on Health more than half (56 percent) of the companies reported increased morale among their work force as a result of their fitness programs and initiatives.

    3. Savings in health care costs.

    In the same poll mentioned above more than one out of four (27 percent) said their fitness initiatives resulted in savings in their health care costs. We listed the long list of health risks associated with obesity earlier in this article - successful programs will obviously reduce those risks and result in lower claims on health care costs.

    4. Providing a better workplace and work-life balance for employees.

    Just as there is a perception that these programs may be discriminatory, the reverse side of this is that these programs demonstrate concern by the employer for the welfare of the employees. The job site is a major part of most people's day, and it can be one of the prime areas where they can increase their health and fitness. Companies that facilitate and promote fitness can benefit from the knowledge that they are providing a better life for their employees, and that the employees will appreciate this in return.

    Obesity in the workplace will be getting more recognition and concern each day that goes by. It is a part of a growing national trend, one that is growing at an alarming rate.

    The cost of obesity in the workplace is in the billions of dollars every year, and in the ill health of millions of employees.

    Companies who grapple with this problem and take a pro-active stance towards it will be ahead of the curve. They will most likely save money and provide a better workplace for their employees, creating a true "win-win" situation.

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    Productivity Or Push? Next Page

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