Obesity tips scales as a dominant employee health problem, study finds

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Obesity remains one of the top workplace health challenges faced by employers, according to a survey of business owners released Monday, with the tab from expanding waistlines estimated to cost employers some $73 billion a year in higher health care bills.

The study “Weight Control and the Workplace” was conducted by the Northeast Business Group on Health, a group of large national employers and other organizations that chart health care costs.

In the face of new insurance provision mandates under President Obama’s health care law, the health of employees has become a major concern for employers, who are scrambling to roll out incentives to reduce costs and increase the physical activity of employees.

Overweight employees “put themselves at risk for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other chronic illnesses,” said the business group’s President and CEO Laurel Pickering.

She said employers and health insurers need to devise coordinated approaches to keeping workers fit and managing their weight “in order to stem skyrocketing health care costs and improve public health.”

Researchers say obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., with one-third of all adults considered overweight. Five years ago, health care spending directly resulting from obesity was as high as $210 billion, or 21 percent of total health spending. When indirect costs were included, this bill more than doubled to more than $450 billion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases accounted for 75 percent of national health care expenditures. If these trends continue, health care costs could double by 2030, the CDC estimates.

The report identified a number of critical parts to a successful workplace weight-loss program, led by support from top executives and prize incentives. While these parts have been successful at encouraging employees to exercise more, the sensitive nature of approaching overweight employees has proven to be a challenge for some.

“One of the challenges employers face in engaging people in weight control efforts is the stigma attached to being overweight or obese,” said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, executive director of the Northeast Business Group on Health’s applied research division.

Much of the stigma is tied to documented workplace health problems among obese employees, who outnumber co-workers 2 to 1 in the number of workers’ compensation requests filed, while averaging six to nine more sick days than their thinner counterparts.

To combat obesity, employers have rolled out wellness programs that have included healthier cafeteria options, free workout classes and prizes for those who make the most progress in the battle of the bulge.

A 2012 study by the Rand Corp. found that 58 percent of employees think incentives are important for participation. When incentive programs were put in place, program participation rose 30 percent.

The American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease in June.

The recognition “could increase physician engagement in identifying overweight and obese individuals for intervention, as well as help reduce the stigma and pave the way for increased participation in employer-sponsored efforts,” Dr. Nobel said.

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