Many employers are discovering that obesity in the workplace is a problem and it’s a problem that cannot be ignored.
“It’s not just the weight, but also the negative effects that come with obesity,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., the director of Nutrition and Weight Management for UPMC Health Plan. “Loss of productivity, absenteeism and a reduced quality of life are all ways obesity can negatively impact employees, which, in turn, can negatively impact the organization.”
From a financial point of view, the costs of absenteeism have been estimated at more than $74 billion annually for U.S. companies. The annual cost for an obese worker has been estimated to be as high as $2,500. In terms of lost productivity, obesity is associated with 39 million lost workdays in the U.S., according to a recent study.
Therefore, employers have a role to play in curbing obesity by creating a more healthy work environment.
Smart Business spoke with Fernstrom about what employers can do to reduce obesity in the workplace.
How can a workplace be more conducive to weight loss?
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. That rate has doubled in a generation. It’s not only genetics; it’s also an unhealthy environment. Because a large part of the day is spent at the workplace, it is only logical that that is one area where an employer’s support for a healthier environment can make a difference.
There are little things an employer can do to support a healthier workplace, starting with food services. They can provide healthier choices in a cafeteria’s vending machine, along with nutrition about the foods that are offered. They can provide options such as water, seltzer and diet soda as alternatives to high-calorie beverages.
What are some of the first steps that could be taken?
You need to establish a wellness committee that can do things such as creating five-minute and 10-minute walking tours for employees. You need to educate employees about the importance of getting 30 minutes of activity a day. For most people, the No. 1 reason for inactivity is a lack of time, not a lack of interest.
What have been shown to be effective incentives at work?
Studies have shown that financial incentives work the best. You can offer things such as health care premium discounts or free or discounted memberships at gyms or in programs like Weight Watchers. You could subsidize the addition of healthier food choices in the cafeteria.
Aren’t some factors that drive obesity beyond the capacity of a workplace to fix?
Yes. For instance, poor stress management is associated with overeating. The workplace can’t really solve that. But many sites offer information to help employees manage the stress of both home and work. Better stress management usually leads to weight loss.
How can employers help to encourage weight loss in the workplace?
It’s important for senior management to convince employees that they feel it is important. They must lead by example. Any effort would be doomed to failure if management adopts a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach.
It’s important to get across the message that even small changes are good. Even if someone can only reach one or two easy goals, it’s a good thing. For example, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, or walking for 30 minutes. The result will produce positive health benefits. Employees need to know how important it is to keep on track. Peer support is also a very important element.
There are some things an employer could do, such as offer an on-site weight-loss program such as Weight Watchers. They could have a wellness committee organize daily or weekly lunchtime walks. These kinds of programs can be most effective if there is early intervention. It’s easier to help a person who is 20 pounds or less overweight than waiting until that person is 40 to 50 pounds overweight. Early intervention is the key.
Are on-site obesity programs only for larger companies?
It doesn’t matter if a company is small or large. The only thing you really need is an interested person. You might need someone who will be responsible for organizing a daily or weekly meeting to discuss weight issues, but it doesn’t have to be an elaborate, expensive program. In the workplace, some kind of social support is very important.
A bigger company might be able to sponsor something such as a Weight Watcher group on-site. A smaller company may not be capable of doing such a thing, but those sorts of things are not necessary for success.
To work, this has to be a partnership. It’s not always the amount of employees who participate in a program, but reaching the people who want to participate. Good health is its own reward. People who truly understand that will excite others to follow their example.
What should an employer’s goal be in dealing with obesity?
The goal is to have a workplace that supports a healthy lifestyle. That’s what you strive for. Of course, it is up to the individual to make the changes necessary for success. An employer can set an example, provide healthier choices in vending machines, establish walking trails and so on, but the rest is up to the employee. Weight loss is complicated. It can be affected by behavior, activity level and medical care. Those things are all parts of the equation. The ‘Battle of the Bulge’ needs to be a partnership between the employee and his or her workplace. It can be done!
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., is the Director of Nutrition and Weight Management for UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at (412) 454-5126 or email@example.com.