- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Obesity exacts a sizable toll on the workplace: Overweight workers are slower and less efficient than their slimmer counterparts — costing their employers an average of $1,800 a year in lost productivity, according to research from the University of Cincinnati.

“The study’s results support other research that has indicated a weight loss of 10 percent can yield substantial health and economic benefits,” said Donna Gates, a professor of nursing and an occupational health and safety researcher at the school.

“Even modest weight loss could result in hundreds of dollars of improved productivity costs per worker each year,” she said, adding that obese workers are “significantly less productive than other workers.”

Other research reveals the complexities presented by portly employees.

According to studies by North Carolina-based RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obese workers cost their bosses an extra $2,500 per year, as a result of medical expenses and missed work. Normal-weight employees miss three days of work annually, while the obese miss more than eight days.

Eric Finkelstein, an RTI health economist and author of the new book “The Fattening of America,” blames America’s expanding waistline on its expanding economy.

“There are simply many more incentives to gain weight than to lose it,” he said. “Successful obesity strategies need to do exactly the opposite of where the economy is taking us. They need to make it cheaper and easier to be thin — not fat.”

The District-based National Business Group on Health, meanwhile, estimates that obesity costs the nation’s employers $13 billion a year.

Ms. Gates diplomatically refers to the failings of fatter workers as “presenteeism” — or those days when employees are on the job but perform at less than capacity. Heavier workers simply couldn’t complete their tasks on time, according to the study, which measured the productivity of 342 overweight manufacturing workers.

“Limitations in performing job tasks and completing work in the expected time could be related to difficulty moving because of increased body size, because of an increased rate of pain or problems due to other maladies, such as arthritis,” Ms. Gates said.

Her study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Still, obesity is a fact of life — nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight, according to the CDC, a percentage that has doubled in the last 25 years.

Most do not think overweight workers should be penalized, however.

A Harris poll of 2,267 adults released in October found that 37 percent of respondents agreed that plump folks should pay higher insurance premiums — down from 53 percent in 2006. Less than a third said they should be required to attend weight-loss programs, and only 4 percent said obesity should be a firing offense.

“Companies are instituting wellness programs, which involve health-risk assessments and fitness coaches, but should remember that obese people, whose health care is among the costliest, are protected by federal law,” noted Harris health care pollster Katherine Binns.