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Tackling Obesity in the Workplace

Employers can help control their health care coverage costs and improve employees’ care by addressing a key lifestyle risk — obesity.

Obesity is a sensitive topic, but is one that must be addressed. “The State of Obesity 2018 Report,” collaboration by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that almost 40 percent of adults nationally meet the criteria for obesity — a body mass index of 30 or greater.

The effects of obesity can be devastating. Obesity is a key factor in rising health care costs, disease, disability and reduced length and quality of life. Obesity also costs employers money through absenteeism, lost productivity, safety and health care costs. A report by professors at Cornell University and Lehigh University found that U.S. national medical expenditures devoted to treating adult obesity-related illness rose from 6.13 percent in 2001 to 7.91 percent in 2015.

Employers — who have access to 151 million employees between the ages of 18 and 65 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016) — have the opportunity to control medical claim costs. These costs are driven by the demand for care by diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, depression, back and knee problems. Employer-sponsored programs and practices aimed at helping employees lose weight and make healthier choices can slow the obesity epidemic. According to a report by Thaler and Sunstein in 2008, workplace changes, such as offering fresh snacks, can be a very effective method to reduce obesity.

Population Health Management

Workplace influences can contribute to obesity. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) says that work may be a contributing factor to obesity. Risk factors include social stressors, psychosocial work factors, working hours, sleep and night shift work and sedentary behavior. Employers can help reduce risks by offering benefits and programs aimed at helping employees choose healthful lifestyles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ACOEM found that the effectiveness of these obesity prevention and control programs depends on the intensity of program effort and the use of a variety of interventions. In short, the most successful programs are implemented as a campaign.

Campaigns can include:

•    Offering health benefit coverage that includes lower premiums for employees who complete a health risk assessment and a recommended health-coaching activity, reimbursement for consultations with a registered dietician and cash or point rewards for regular physical activity.

•    Onsite support for healthy activities, such as healthy dining and vending options; open stairwells, walking paths and signage marking distances and recommending physical activities; break rooms with stretching equipment; and free filtered water.

•    Fostering a culture that supports positive changes by providing health and wellness programs or competitions.

•    Implementing programs that also support employees’ families health by making healthy dinners-to-go available in the employee café; and expanding access to company fitness facilities to employees’ family members.

•    Offering insurance coverage and access to bariatric surgery. ACOEM experts say that research shows obesity medications and bariatric surgery effectively cut medical costs in the long term.

The bottom line is to determine what you can do based on your resources. Take advantage of what you already have, like access to a health professional or space for fitness classes. Talk to your broker about the benefits and wellness programs offered by various carriers to find one that best fits your needs. 

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