Obesity doesn’t just influence employees’ waistlines, but also employers’ bottom lines.  That is why we at The Alliance want to help employers understand its causes and effects on health – and how their employees and businesses are impacted – to offer best practices and guidance on how to manage this epidemic in the workplace.

Defining Obesity

Obesity is a chronic, progressive, relapsing, treatable, multi-factorial neurobehavioral disease that promotes abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that impairs health. It leads to anatomic and metabolic impairments in body function and biomechanical and psychosocial health consequences.

In other words, obesity is a complex disease, that is influenced by a person’s predispositions and genetics, physiology, and environment. The American Medical Association recognizes obesity as a global health challenge that requires a chronic disease management model.

How Obesity Impacts Employers

In 2017, obesity cost the United States $1.4 trillion in health care costs. Obesity is associated with several comorbidities, which can result in substantial costs to employer health plans:

  • Arthritis
  • Depression
  • Insulin resistance
  • Irritable bowel disease
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Psoriasis
  • Asthma
  • Stroke
  • Chronic back pain
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Hypertension
  • Sleep apnea
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Certain cancers

Additionally, nearly 59% of WCHQ member-patients met the criteria for obesity in 2020, which makes obesity’s prevalence more meaningful to employers than almost all other diseases.

Weight Loss and Obesity

Obviously, weight loss is the most effective tactic to reduce the chances of (and mitigate the symptoms of) diabetes. Sustained weight loss of 5-10% in patients with obesity is proven to:

  • reduce absenteeism by more than 4 days per year
  • improve presenteeism by 6.3%
  • reduce lifetime risk of Type 2 diabetes by 3%
  • reduce cardiovascular risk by as much as 20%
  • improve HDL cholesterol and triglycerides
  • reduce the severity of sleep apnea by more than 25%

Treating Obesity

There are five ways to produce weight loss to reduce the risk and complications of diabetes and prediabetes:

Nutrition: Doctors may recommend calorie-restricted diets, intermittent fasting, or refer patients to a dietician or nutritionist who can help create a healthy eating plan.

Physical Activity: Boosting physical activity is an essential part of obesity treatment, and patients should aim for some form of moderately intense exercise on a daily basis.

Behavioral Changes: One-on-one counseling, support groups, and other programs can be effective add-on options for obesity treatment.

Medications: When healthy eating, physical activity, and behavioral changes aren’t producing the results a patient and their doctor want to achieve, the doctor may prescribe medications to treat obesity and unhealthy weight.

Bariatric Surgery: This can be a highly effective treatment option for patients committed to making life-long changes in their eating and exercise habits and is usually reserved for more extreme cases.

Using Data to Combat Obesity in The Workplace

Biometrics are the mainstay for guiding any benefits strategy, however other data analysis can tell you more about your employee population. Monitoring sick days and asking your employees about job satisfaction, nutrition, hours of sleep, and what kind of exercise they’re getting are all data sets that can help guide your benefits strategy.

Additionally, crafting surveys to gauge things like absenteeism and presenteeism don’t just offer valuable data, but they can also help reinforce leadership’s “buy-in” to innovate the benefits you offer.

How To Talk to Employees About Obesity

To get employees engaged with your obesity prevention programs without making them feel uncomfortable, meet them where they’re at.

  • Stay high-level and direct them to available resources. Let their doctor, care coordinator, or patient manager target conversations about obesity directly.
  • Offer tools and solutions while remaining positive and not mentioning obesity specifically.
  • Always emphasize that small health improvements make a big difference
  • When applicable, remind them that participation in healthy weight programs provide financial incentives that help make their health costs more affordable.

Providing multiple options can be much more appealing to a diverse patient population. Here’s some offerings we’ve heard employers use with success:

  • Fitness coaching
  • Behavioral health integration
  • Nutrition management
  • Counseling
  • Online Courses
  • Health Coaches
  • Mindfulness

Additionally, communicating these programs and resources is mandatory for them to become successful. Consider sending emails and direct mail to staff, hand out flyers, update the company intranet page, create and share videos, and lastly, discuss health benefits at quarterly meetings, onboarding meetings, and annually at benefits enrollment meetings.

Download the Employer Obesity Checklist

The Alliance has partnered with WCHQ, Health Payment Systems, and M3 Insurance to offer a downloadable employer resource to help employers fight obesity and save their employees money. Check it out here.

To learn more about obesity in the workplace, watch our obesity event replay!

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Jennifer Austin

Jennifer Austin

Jennifer Austin joined The Alliance in 2019 and currently leads the teams managing current employer-members and marketing and communication efforts. Before joining The Alliance, Jennifer worked at a number of companies in Chicago and Madison, focusing on marketing and strategy development for hospitals and health systems, including Advocate Healthcare (now Advocate Aurora Health), Augusta University Health, and HCA Healthcare.

Jennifer has a master’s degree in Global Marketing, Communications, and Advertising from Emerson College and a bachelor’s degree in Art and English from The University of Iowa.

Read more blog posts by Jennifer