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April 28, 2008
Obese Workers Costing Employers $45 Billion
A new report on obesity presents some stunning statistics: Over 1 in 3 American adults fit the definition of "obese." The rate of obesity in the United States has doubled in the past 30 years. Health care costs associated with obesity are higher than those for smoking or problem drinking.

And the impact on employers, as reflected in this article's title, is monumental--obese employees are costing U.S. private employers about $45 billion each year in medical expenses and time lost from work, according to The Conference Board.

That's not to say that employers aren't reacting to the problem. According to The Conference Board's report, Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know about Obesity, more than 40 percent of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs and 24 percent more plan to do so this year.

What's the return on investment of wellness programs been? The report found that for each $1 invested, ROI has ranged from zero to $5. However, as explained in a press release announcing the report, aside from ROI, companies that have such programs in place may have an edge in recruiting and retaining desirable employees.

"Employers need to realize that obesity is not solely a health and wellness issue," said Labor Economist Linda Barrington and co-author of the report, in the press release. "Employees' obesity-related health problems in the United States are costing companies billions of dollars each year in medical coverage and absenteeism. Employers need to pay attention to their workers' weights, for the good of the bottom line, as well as the good of the employees and of society."

The report noted that many believe it may be more effective "just to award employees cash and prizes for weight loss rather than devote resources to long-term wellness programs." The report also notes that how employers communicate a wellness or weight-loss program is as important as how they design it, noting that employees should be involved in the process of planning health initiatives and that employee privacy issues should be addressed.

The Conference Board also added that there is evidence that as weight goes up among workers, wages go down. So employers need to be aware of potential discrimination risks in their efforts to address employees' weight, "whether for the employee's own good or that of the company."

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