Employees’ Obesity Costs Employers

This week, The US Conference Board released a report called “Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know about Obesity” on the financial and ethical questions surrounding whether, and how, US companies should address the obesity epidemic.

Apparently employees’ obesity-related health problems cost US companies an estimated $45 Billion each year in medical coverage and absenteeism – more than smoking or problem drinking.

Given the high costs of obesity, the report estimates the return on investment for employee wellness programs from zero to $5 per $1 invested. ROI aside, these programs may give companies an edge in recruiting and retaining desirable employees. The report also looks at the issue of awarding employees cash and prizes for weight loss rather than devoting resources to long-term wellness programs.

Interestingly the report also discusses the benefits of paying for employees’ obesity surgeries. Apparently 9% of the US workforce would be eligible for such surgery, but because people often change jobs (e.g. in the retail industry), employers may not always recoup the full costs of supporting obesity surgery in their employees.

One big concern of course is how employers can address this issue without seeming intrusive or discriminatory. It is recommended that companies should involve employees in planning health initiatives, rather than working from the top-down, and should make sure personal privacy is protected.

While this report focuses on the US, and for obvious reasons cannot directly be transferred to the Canadian situation with its more or less universal health coverage, it is unlikely that obesity, at least with regard to absenteeism and early disability, is any less expensive to Canadian employers.

While preventive “wellness initiatives” may work for the 3/4 of the workforce, which does not yet have obesity, how do you provide effective obesity treatments to the employees who already have the problem?

Allow me to offer a few pointers:

1) Inform employees about evidence-based treatment options for this condition.

2) Encourage employees to seek treatments for obesity like they would seek treatments for any other chronic disease (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, etc.).

3) Supplement costs for evidence-based obesity treatments (including behavioural interventions, special diets, medications and surgery) as prescribed by qualified health professionals.

As I have blogged before – we may not have a cure for obesity – but we sure have treatments that work!

Edmonton, Alberta