Ways to Lower Obesity-Related Costs

Posted on Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Obesity is becoming an epidemic in America. Here are a few surprising statistics from the American Obesity Association based on figures from the Centers for Disease Control:

Four Ways to Encourage 
Healthy Behavior

    1. Stock vending machines with bottled water and healthy snack foods.
    2. Negotiate employee group discounts with local gyms.
    3. Communicate that health care flexible spending accounts can be used for physician-recommended weight-loss programs (including obesity).
    4. Provide employees with access or negotiated discounts to personal and online weight management programs and nutritional counseling.

The "10,000-Step Challenge"

    Addressing weight loss in the workplace is a sensitive issue. Yet, considering the effect of obesity on health care costs, many employers are zeroing in on it. Research shows that if a weight-loss plan is convenient, the workplace can be the ideal setting to tackle the problem. 
    Here's how one business did it:
    Highmark, a Pittsburgh health insurance company, turned a fitness program into fun. An internal survey showed that more than half of employees were overweight to some degree and three-quarters exercised too little.
   After learning this, Highmark issued a pedometer to anyone who wanted one. The company began a "10,000 Step Challenge." In a 12-week voluntary program, participants lost an average of six pounds each and many employees lost more. Even after the program ended, many employees continued the "Challenge," making weight-loss the hot topic around the water cooler.

Of the American population, 65 percent of adults are overweight.
Of those, about 34 percent are obese.
Close to 5 percent are severely obese, which is defined as a person who has a body mass index of 40 or higher, or in an average adult male, roughly 100 pounds of excess weight.

These numbers represent a dramatic increase in recent years. In 1986, the non-profit research corporation Rand reported that one in 200 adults was severely obese. By the year 2000, the number had risen to one in 50. Some of the factors involved in the rise of obesity include increasingly sedentary lifestyles and workplaces, the popularity of fast food -- and super-sized meal portions. The result is many Americas are becoming unhealthy.

What Does This Mean for Your Business?

Obesity is associated with more than 30 medical conditions, according to the American Obesity Association, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and depression. Research from Rand found that obesity is linked to chronic health conditions at even higher rates than smoking and heavy drinking. 

Because of this connection between obesity and chronic conditions, obese individuals spend more than the general population on health services and medications. To be precise, Rand calculates this difference to be 36 percent more for health care services and 77 percent more for medications.

With obesity and health care costs on the rise, the implications for employers can be staggering. According to a report by the Washington Business Group on Health, businesses lose more than $12 billion each year due to the byproducts of obesity:

Higher utilization of health care.
Lowered productivity.
Increased absenteeism.
Higher disability insurance premiums.

Some Workplace Solutions

Recommendations for employers from the Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy include:

Make health risk appraisals available to employees, along with action plans for those at risk.
Facilitate programs such as Weight Watchers at Work.
Encourage employees to enroll in health plans that offer comprehensive strategies for weight management.

Which approach is the right one for a given business? It depends on your company's employees, budget, and philosophy. At a minimum, employers should become familiar with the facts surrounding obesity and its impact on the workplace, and communicate this information to employees.

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