Obese Employees Are Costly to Businesses

Out-of-shape Americans perform poorly on the job

At one time or another, we’ve all likely muttered to ourselves, “This job will be the death of me.” During particularly challenging workdays, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of toll our jobs are having our on health.  After all, the workplace is a major source of stress for a lot of people. And for those of us with desk jobs, the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine is also a sedentary one. But recent studies and headlines are turning the tables on employees, asking what their health is doing to business. Last week, a study released by Duke University found that obese, full-time employees cost U.S. businesses an estimated $73.1 billion. According to the research, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the largest share of costs were due to lost productivity on the job because of health problems. The rest of the costs were related to employee medical expenses and health-related absenteeism.

While obese workers make up 37 percent of the workforce, they account for 61 percent of expenses, according to the study. For women with a body mass index (BMI) over 40 -- roughly 100 pounds overweight -- the per capita cost to a company can be as high as $16,900; for men in the same BMI category, costs are about $15,500.  

Another recent study on the impact of employee health on businesses found that people with unhealthy habits were more likely to perform poorly on the job than those who followed a healthy lifestyle. While weight was a key factor, it wasn’t the only one that led to inadequate productivity. Smoking, lack of exercise and diets lacking in fruits and vegetables were associated with more sick days and lost productivity. Cigarette smokers and obese workers were most likely to take sick days. People who drank excessively, on the other hand, were less likely to take time off for poor health. 

Perhaps it’s no wonder then that companies like IBM are offering their employees cash incentives to get healthy. Over 11,000 workers at the blue chip earned $150 for improving their families’ diet and physical fitness during a 12-week program. Fifty percent of its eligible workforce signed up for the program, and of that number 50 percent finished the program. Though a $1.65 million payout might seem steep, it’s a bargain when compared to the $15,500 to $16,900 per capita price tag of obese employees. Of course once the program is over, there’s nothing to stop employees from going back to their old habits.  

Other companies, like Harlandale Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas (one of the fattest cities in America), adopted the Virgin HealthMiles program, which allows employees to collect points for steps walked. Those in the program clip on a pedometer and then upload the information to an online tracker. The more you walk, the more points you get, which leads to bigger rewards, usually in the form of cash or a gift card. Because there is no end to the program, people can rack up points -- and cash bonuses -- year after year if they stay motivated. And if cold, hard cash doesn’t do it in this flagging economy, it’s hard to say what will. 

I would love to belong to a company that offers rewards for a healthy lifestyle. Even though I eat well on most days, I could always use a kick in the pants to get me to the gym. Taking the padding off my waistline while adding padding to my wallet would definitely help sweeten the deal. Though I’m sure that on days when I really just don’t want to work out it would probably take a lot more than a few dollars to get me on a treadmill. 

Do you think businesses should offer incentives to get their employees healthy and fit? Chime in below! 



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