Obesity Weighs Down Production

Overweight workers can hurt productivity, but employers can help by encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Employers might want to revise their cafeteria menus and rethink their choices of vending machine snacks and beverages, according to a study by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's official publication reported in January that workers with moderate to extreme obesity had the greatest health-related limitations at work.

The study was based on a random sample of 341 manufacturing employees. Most of the workers were categorized as either overweight or obese, including 23% qualifying as mildly obese and 13% moderately obese. Another 43% were classified as overweight but not obese.

So what does this mean for employers? Presenteeism, defined as employees not performing at full capacity, was 1.8% higher for workers with moderate to severe obesity than for all other employees, the study shows. Based on an hourly wage of $21 per hour, that translates into an annual cost of $1,800 for a moderately to obese worker -- about $500 higher than for other workers. The reason for the lost productivity is likely the result of reduced mobility because of increased body size or weight or pain problems attributed to other maladies, such as arthritis.

Workplace Health Habits: By The Numbers

72 Percentage of employees who eat an unhealthy snack at work

42 Percentage of companies offering healthy food selections in their cafeterias or vending machines

27 Percentage of employees 18-27 years old who spend the majority of their work day at their desks

40 Percentage of employees 28-44 years old who spend the majority of their work day at their desks

30 Percentage of employees 45 and older who spend the majority of their work day at their desks

Source: Nationwide Better Health, based on a survey of 2,063 full-time-employed adults age 18 and older

Another study, this one by Nationwide Better Health, a subsidiary of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., shows that work-related stress may contribute to obesity. Of the 2,063 adults responding, 38% agree that work-related stress leads to bad eating habits. Generation X workers (ages 28 to 44 years old) are the most likely to allow stress to affect their diets, with 45% saying that their jobs impact their eating habits.

The data suggest that employers can reduce costs and improve productivity by developing workplace health programs. "The study's results support other research that has indicated that a weight loss of 10% can yield substantial health and economic benefits," notes study leader Donna Gates, a University of Cincinnati doctor of education and registered nurse. "Even modest weight loss could result in hundreds of dollars of improved productivity costs per worker each year."

Some of the ways companies can encourage their workers to lose weight include discounts for health club memberships, onsite exercise facilities or equipment, changes in cafeteria menus and postings in lunchrooms about calorie counts on specific foods, says JoAnn Laing, an author of books relating to health savings accounts and president of marketing and media firm Information Strategies Inc.

Laing also suggests offering health-related group activities for employees. "If you do anything by yourself, that's harder, so if there's a group of like people going after the same goal, those programs are successful in the fact that more than one person is doing it."

Most employees would be receptive to employer-provided health programs, according to the nationwide survey. The report shows that 66% of employees would participate in gym memberships, nutrition education and weight-management programs if their employer offered them. "Companies can provide resources that encourage their employees to eat well, stay active and, in short, live the best life possible," notes Dr. Neil Gordon, a preventive medicine physician and Nationwide Better Health's chief medical and science officer. "These resources could not only help reduce healthcare spending for both employees and employers, but they could also help improve productivity."

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