bad news for employers in recent obesity projections

May 11, 2012

in wellness


by 2030, 42% of americans will be obese. if this projection and the projections regarding the percentage of employers continuing to offer health care benefits bear out, employers will shoulder a good portion of the cost. and the costs to employers are staggering. according to a reuters article on the subject:

  • obesity-related absenteeism costs employers $6.4 billion per year
  • obesity-related presenteeism (being on the job but not at your most productive) costs employers $30 billion

these costs don’t tell the full story, however. they don’t account for the financial and physical toll on the individual, including lost job opportunity, lowered wages, animosity and vilification.

the projections, their associated figures and the subsequent fallout are what makes the institute of medicine’s accelerating progress in obesity prevention: solving the weight of the nation so timely. the report was released as part of the centers for disease control and prevention’s “weight of the nation” conference. it pulls from a review of over 800 obesity prevention recommendations to put forth those the committee believes are most effective, best able to integrate and support one another, and most likely to accelerate progress. the recommendations fall under five key areas:

  • integrating physical activity into people’s daily lives
  • making healthy food and beverage options available everywhere
  • transforming marketing and messages about nutrition and activity
  • making schools a gateway to healthy weights
  • galvanizing employers and health care professionals to support healthy lifestyles

employers don’t need much “galvanizing.” they’ve been trying to tackle this issue of “supporting healthy lifestyles” for years. what they need help with are practical and effective ways to get and keep employees’ attention, guide them to the healthiest option, and support them with issues that interfere with health (stress, both emotional and financial, and feelings of disempowerment) and in areas away from work (home, community).

here’s a list of steps employers can take to advance their obesity prevention effort. some are from the report, some aren’t. frankly, there’s nothing new on the list. it’s a matter of being very specific about who you’re trying to reach, knowing what will support and guide them, measuring and tweaking over time, and going beyond implementing programs and providing information to altering the environment. employers must:

  • ensure that both the healthy-weight and the overweight—and their families— have access to obesity prevention and management benefits
  • review pricing and incentive design to reduce financial barriers to participation in obesity prevention and management benefits
  • make at-work physical activity the norm, with walking and standing meetings, dance breaks and other tools to get employees up and moving
  • revamp your cafeteria and vending machine options
  • find small, simple ways to shift ingrained eating and activity habits
  • design specific at-work and at-home interventions and challenges that focus on activity and healthy eating
  • educate employees and family members about how to shop for food, read food labels and cook healthy items at home
  • communicate incessantly about available programs after testing what messaging is most effective with your intended audience
  • provide robust, individualized online resources and information that are accessible 24/7 and from any tool, be it web, tablet or phone
  • reduce stress and associated overeating by increasing workplace flexibility and support for specific groups (e.g., caregivers), providing adequate job training and reducing work overload, and delivering resources to manage daily expenses and long-term financial goals

it’s safe to say that work-related interventions will have limited success if our broader environment stays unchanged. for that reason, employers would do themselves a favor by joining conversations about food policy, food access, neighborhood walkability and other solutions raised in the four other areas of this report.

if you’re interested in exploring how to create experiences and environments that support healthy behavior, please join next wednesday’s #co_health chat with kristi durazo. our topic is “small steps to big changes.”


Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. David Ballard May 11, 2012 at 10:13 am

A serious issue and even worse than reported, above. Estimate is that by 2030, 42 percent will be OBESE. More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are already either overweight or obese. See for more stats.


fran May 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

thanks david! made that change.


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