America Is Officially the Fattest Developed Country in the World.

Health care costs linked to obesity and resulting conditions such as diabetes are greater than those that are related to smoking and problem drinking. A Rand Corp. study published by the Wall Street Journal found that compared to people in a normal weight range:

  • Costs for obese people on hospital and outpatient care is 36% higher.
  • Costs for medication is 77% higher .

Jennifer Benz of Benz Communications  recently highlighted the HBO four-part documentary series, The Weight of the Nation, which discussed  how obesity rates are continuing to increase to the point there are unprecedented health problems in children. Some statistics highlighted:

  • 68.8% of Americans are overweight or obese.
  • 9 of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates rank among the nation’s poorest.
  • The CDC listed obesity as one of its seven public health priorities

Employers Pay the Price

A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, highlighted in Time, shows that obesity costs U.S. employers $73.1 billion a year.

“Presenteeism” — a lack of productivity while at work — accounted for 68% of the cost for obese men and 56% for obese women.

Rising Childhood Obesity Costs Employers Too

Over 20% of 2 to 5-year-olds are either overweight or obese. This affects employers’ health care budgets, particularly now that children can stay on their parents’ employer-provided health care plan up to age 26.  The National Business Group on Health finds that children and adolescents are responsible for 14.7% of an employer’s health care costs, and that obese children have much higher health care utilization.  Since obese children miss more days of school and have greater emotional challenges, this can take parents away from work, or distract them while they’re there. Helping them do something about it also positively affects parents’ health behavior and their sense of loyalty to their company.

A “Winnable Battle”

Benefits communications and wellness programs can help.  This is a “winnable battle” that can start at the office with programs you may already have:

Effective Benefits Communications Can Be Vital

Some of Jennifer’s suggestions include:

  • Engage your employees. Studies show that they if they are not actively engaged and interested, they do not participate, and the program fails.  Employees respond to what’s important to them, and the most successful programs speak to all of the interests and concerns of employees, are clearly and obviously aligned with corporate goals (encouraging health to reduce benefits, administration and employee turnover costs), and are linked to incentives that are personally or financially meaningful to employees (including healthcare premium savings, days off and other rewards.)
  • Harness the power of community. The power of  peer groups is widely documented in research such as Connected.  Although our actions and beliefs are influenced by those around us, few companies encourage a peer-to-peer employee conversations about health or have adopted social media to support their education efforts and allow employees and families to learn from each others’ choices.
  • Employ tools to help parents support their obese children, which can influence the health of your employees as well. Tools employers can use include:
    • Review their benefits plans’ services and eligibility to make sure kids can access available counseling and programs.
    • Expand wellness programs’ eligibility and incentive structure to include kids.
    • Design specific interventions and challenges to focus on kids’ interests and rewards.
    • Create family-based events and educational experiences to collaborate with parents.
    • Join local and state conversations about food lunch programs, food access, neighborhood walkability, etc.
    • Give to organizations that increase access to food, improve school lunches or in other ways support this mission.
  • Use biometric screenings to start helping people make real changes. To make it successful you need to:
    • Effectively use communication and branding to drive participation and understanding.
    • Provide guidance on how to prepare for a screening that will ensure the best possible results.
    • Provide an opportunity to learn key health numbers and  empower people in a way that blood tests as experienced in a hospital or doctor’s office often are not.
    • Follow up with advocacy and support – be able to discuss next steps, direct employees to additional resources, accurately outline the appeals process, and explain the design of the incentive system to make it physically, emotionally, and financially relevant for employees.
    • Ensure data accuracy and integration – data collection and integration technology that integrates the various vendors that provide health care-related services can improve  ease of implementation, oversight, speed, and accuracy.

Promote Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Support

  • Promote your health risk questionnaire, which often gives an employee a snapshot of their overall health. Medical carriers can provide coaching on nutrition/
  • Educate your employees about the preventive care that’s available to them. This could include a biometric screening, which checks your Body Mass Index, cholesterol, blood pressure and other indicators of  overall health.
  • Start a weight management program or encourage participation. Organizations like Weight Watchers can provide corporate discounts.
  • Providehealthy cafeteria options including nuts and fruit.
  • Support a healthy recipe exchange program between coworkers.
  • Challenge employees to take 10,000 steps a day, and provide them with a pedomoter .
  • Negotiate gym discounts.
  • Encourage participation in charity walks.

More resources

Snap! principle of the cost of obesity to employers:

Employers can stem both the medical and productivity costs of obesity through investments in weight management or other wellness programs.
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