Call Us : 1-800-487-7898
Obesity and workplace health – a sizeable challenge

Obesity and workplace health – a sizeable challenge

By Helen Young*

Rarely a day goes by without the issue of obesity hitting the media headlines. Whether the story focuses on adults, young people or even babies the message is the same – obesity is fast becoming one of the top health challenges for the United States today. Getting to grips with this challenge will require concerted action from every part of society including employers. With the average full time employee spending at least one third of their day at work there is clearly an opportunity for the organizations they work for to play a significant part in addressing obesity. If doing the right thing in the interests of employee health isn’t incentive enough, new evidence shows another compelling reason for employers to take action. A recent study carried out by Brookings Institution has found that America’s problem with weight is negatively affecting the economy. Reduced attendance at work and productivity when in work combined with higher associated health benefit costs are just some of the symptoms of an overweight workforce. Here we take a closer look at the scale of the problem and discover how employers can take a proactive approach to this sizeable challenge.

Obesity – scaling up

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one-third of all American adults are obese. This has not always been the case though, with levels rising year on year since at least 1990, when overall obesity was around 15% lower. Although every state faces the obesity challenge nowadays, some have more of an issue than others. West Virginia and Mississippi have the highest rates of obesity (35.17%) with Colorado at the opposite end of the scale where 21.3% of the population is classified as obese. Approximately 112,000 deaths are attributed to obesity each year, with annual medical costs estimated to be as high as $147 billion nationwide. Although obesity is a modern day public health issue affecting nations around the world, it is worrying to consider that America tops the list of most obese countries.

Obesity – the problem for employers

While some employers may feel that obesity is nothing to do with them and that it is up to individuals to manage their weight, taking a hands off approach is not an effective long term approach. Absenteeism associated with obesity currently costs US employers some $8.65 billion every year and with obesity levels ever rising so will this eye watering figure. Reduced productivity is also a major issue according to research carried out by the University of Buffalo and Virginia Tech. They found that obese people needed longer and more frequent rest breaks and were also more likely to suffer a workplace injury. Increased fatigue meant that overall they demonstrated 40% shorter endurance times in their jobs. Obesity also has a sizeable effect on public health bills- now adding at least $190 billion to the cost of national healthcare provision, which is even more than smoking. This clearly filters through to employers’ healthcare costs and the price tag associated with health insurance.

Obesity – taking action

Employers have two main options when it comes to how to get involved with the obesity challenge – they can go it alone or they can become part of broader initiatives. Here we look at an example of each:

Workplace health initiatives- Although there is evidence to suggest that employees want their employers to help them lose weight, taking complete control of the issue would be unrealistic and potentially disempowering. The most sensible approach is to work in partnership with the employee and support their weight reduction journey. D&H Distributing, a North American consumer electronics company, decided to use this type of strategy when it offered employees the chance to share in the purchase of a height adjustable ‘standing desk.’ Designed to address the state of physical stagnation many office workers experience, this desk allows the worker to sit/stand while carrying out their daily tasks. The company also offered a range of other products to encourage and promote fitness such as wearable health monitors and activity trackers. Sharing in the cost of these items meant employees could access them at a reasonable price and both parties get to enjoy the benefits of the results.

Collaborative campaigns- Working with other companies and public bodies can be a great way of addressing obesity. One such region taking this approach is Florida with its Healthiest Weight Florida Initiative. Developed in recognition of the fact that only 36 percent of state residents are a healthy weight this public-private collaboration involves state agencies, schools, businesses, communities and not-for-profit organizations. Examples of employer participation include the introduction of ‘fit friendly’ workplaces, support for Global Employee Health & Fitness Month and allowing de-stress breaks during work. The collective goal is to make Florida the healthiest weight state in America and ‘bend the weight curve by 5% by 2017.’

However employers decide to approach the issue of obesity it is clear that doing nothing is not an option. For the sake of the nation’s future health and economic prosperity this is a battle everyone needs to weigh in on.


* Helen Young, 32, married and a mom of two young girls, has worked in the healthcare sector specializing in mental health. Currently, in addition to writing, she’s a volunteer, working through local charities to support those with depression and anxiety issues.

View a Demo of Our Online Courses
  • The Virtual Workplace
  • Managing the High Performance Workplace
  • From Stress to Resilience
  • The Flexible Workplace
  • Introducing Flexibility: A Guide for Human Resources
Organizational Wellness Blog:

85 ways to be supportive