Obesity is predicted to bump tobacco out of its title of leading preventable cause of death in the United States (CDC). With the percentage of obese adults in the US continuing to rise and the percentage of worldwide obesity more than doubling since 1980, this epidemic is now referred to as the ‘global tsunami of obesity’. Since over 60% of Americans are in the workforce, obesity has become a problem for companies due to the negative effects weight gain has on the individual’s overall wellbeing as well as the financial load on employers due to health care costs and lost productivity.
Obesity-associated health care costs are greater than those attributable to smoking, drinking and poverty. An employee with a body mass Index of 35, compared to an employee with a BMI of 25, has nearly double the risk of filing a short-term disability claim or a workers’ compensation claim. In fact, the costs associated with an obese individual are estimated to be more than $1,400 higher than healthy weight individuals. These costs are largely due to the chronic diseases and musculoskeletal issues that extra weight increases the risk of acquiring. Bottom line, obesity significantly increases the risk of incurring the most costly health care conditions.
While the workplace may be conducive for weight gain, it also can be a place of opportunity to address the problem. Adding a wellness program into the workplace benefits the employer and employee alike such as: lower healthcare costs, higher employee morale and greater job satisfaction, more productivity, fewer injuries, lower absenteeism and increased ability to recruit and retain top talent. Above all, by tackling obesity, we will succeed as a society in improving well-being and reducing the loss of life. Since full-time employees spend the majority of their waking hours at their job, it is the responsibility of the workplace to have wellness initiatives in place if a mass change is to occur.
Adding Movement & Physical Activity:
Sitting is known as the ‘silent killer’ or ‘the new smoking’, and for good reasons. Sitting for more than 4 hours per day can lead to a host of preventable health problems such as obesity, diabetes, low back pain, certain kinds of cancer, and heart disease. Sitting slows the metabolism down by 90% within minutes of taking seat, and only after 20 minutes, blood begins to pool in the legs. The good news is that within 5 minutes of standing, insulin uptake increases and enzymes that fight bad cholesterol get back to work. There are many solutions to help foster a more dynamic workplace and culture to increase the benefits of movement and physical activity. Life Fitness, for example, has meeting rooms with standing-height conference tables and treadmill desks readily available for any of its 1,1882 employees who need a break and want to get in some movement. Additionally, they have an 8-minute circuit training gym available for employees to get in a quick workout. If you don’t already have a solution working for physical activity, it is recommended to first start with a survey and ask employees what they would like.
Here is a list of ways shown to help create a more active workplace:
- Offer adjustable sit & stand-up desks
- Add in walking meetings
- Provide an onsite gym or cover cost of gym memberships
- Provide pedometers and/or digital health technologies to monitor movement
- Sponsor competitions such as a 5K company Turkey Trot (seasonal competitions are shown to break records in regards to participation)
- Allow for and support walk breaks or working out during lunch time
Promoting Nutrition and Weight Loss:
Commonly found at companies both big and small are jars and bowls filled with candy, pretzels, and other unhealthy snacks. If your workplace supports unhealthy foods, like snack jars available to employees filled with sugary candy, then you might as well be promoting weight gain. Considering all the health risks, including death, that unhealthy foods pose, it is not far off from having packs of cigarettes lying around available to people trying to quit. Kaiser Permanente demonstrates its leadership in creating a healthy work culture by having vending machines filled with healthy options and cafeterias that comply with Partnership for a Healthier America’s guidelines. In addition to offering healthy options, they implement an Instant Recess campaign, which promotes 10-minute physical fitness breaks in the middle of the day to support mental breaks and weight loss. To support nutrition and weight loss at your workplace make sure there are healthy food options readily available. Go a step further and make the healthy options easy to grab on the fly such as pre cut and prepared veggies.
Here is a list of ways shown to help create a more healthy workplace:
- Have lunch-in learns to educate employees on good nutrition
- Fill snack machines with healthy food options
- Only offer nutritious food at company-sponsored events
- Offer an evidence-based weight loss program and/or digital health programs with health coaching
- Offer healthy food alternatives at meetings
- Encourage eating lunch away from the desk
Nearly everyone is familiar with stress eating, so it may not come as a surprise that stress can lead to obesity. Stress can cause biochemical reactions in the body that lead to craving unhealthy foods as well as increased appetite and fat storage. Stress also leads to a host of other issues such as sleep deprivation, stomach aches, headaches and low morale. All these issues, according to the American Institute of Stress, lead up to US businesses spending more than $300 billion annually. To reduce stress and raise moral companies such as Tough Mudders flex-from-home policy and Bowers + Kubota Consulting, a company well recognized for successful workplace satisfaction, offer flex time and paid time off instead of “sick leave” and encourages employees to use it to recharge. Employees at Bowers + Kubota can also earn an extra day of PTO for doing community service. A fantastic resource for how to reduce stress at the workplace can be found at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Samples of what companies are doing to reduce stress at work include:
- Flex time
- Unlimited vacation or generous paid time off (PTO)
- Healthy worksite classes (yoga, meditation, exercise)
- Giving workers opportunities to participate in decisions affecting their jobs
- Social activities at the workplace to foster community and connection
- Clear definitions of employee roles and responsibilities
Solving the weight-gain and obesity epidemic requires a comprehensive wellness program that addresses exercise, nutrition and stress at the workplace. Companies that have successful wellness programs not only see a ROI on their healthcare expenses, but also have happier and healthier employees. Below are some more resources on what other companies are doing for their employees and on how to start a wellness program. Start your workplace wellness program today: addressing the obesity epidemic at work has the power to save lives.
- Schulte PA, Wagner GR, Ostry A, et al. Work, obesity, and occupational safety and health. Am J Pub Health 2007;97:428-436.