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Obesity in the Workplace

More than two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight, and half of these individuals are frankly obese. (1) The adverse health effects of weight gain and obesity – diabetes, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, hypertension, gallbladder disease, and cancer – are well known. The impacts of employee obesity on employers’ costs may be somewhat less appreciated.

Obesity Affects the Costs of Doing Business

Many employers are reluctant to hire overweight individuals because they fear their business costs will increase. Among the most prominent employer concerns are:

  • Health insurance costs: Even though group health plans distribute the costs of health care among all employees in a company – perhaps even several companies – insurers routinely review their own costs and increase premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits accordingly. An employer’s share of insurance coverage can be significant, and negative perceptions of a prospective employee’s health might preclude hiring.
  • Absenteeism: Employers must deal with the absence or loss of a worker when illness or injury makes it impossible for the employee to be at the workplace. Employers who believe that obese persons are at an increased risk for illness may preferentially hire non-obese individuals with similar qualifications.
  • Workplace modifications: Even though workplace construction must comply with criteria established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many employers fear that additional concessions must be made for obese employees.
  • On-the-job injuries: A 2007 Duke University study demonstrated that obese workers were twice as likely to file workers’ compensation claims as non-obese employees, had seven times the medical costs, and lost 13 times more days from work following a work-related injury or illness. (2)

Obesity and Workplace Discrimination

Even though personal behaviors are major contributors to obesity, obese individuals rarely choose to be that way. Genetic, psychosocial, economic, cultural, and metabolic factors also play significant roles in weight gain.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensures that everyone in the United States has a right to employment free from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 7 of this ruling has been used in weight discrimination suits involving protected classes of citizens. In addition, many states now consider weight, height, and marital status to be protected categories.

Legally, then, weight cannot be used as the sole criterion for hiring or firing an individual, nor can an employee’s weight affect his or her performance evaluation. Unfortunately, even when weight discrimination is the basis for disciplinary action or discharge, it is often disguised as a valid performance issue. For example, obese individuals who miss a lot of work due to weight-related illness may have trouble meeting deadlines or productivity quotas.

Positive Employer Approaches to Workplace Obesity

Many employers recognize that a worker’s weight is unrelated to his or her value as an employee, but they want to protect themselves and help their employees to retain their positions. Among the innovations offered by such employers are:

  • On-site Weight Watchers programs
  • Discounted health club memberships
  • Extended lunch hours for employees who use the additional time to exercise
  • Employee assistance programs that offer weight counseling
  • Subsidies for community-based weight management programs
  • Discounted health insurance premiums for workers who lose weight, quit smoking, or participate in exercise programs or other health-promoting activities
  • Healthy menus in on-site cafeterias and healthy snacks in vending machines

In 1998, when far fewer American workers were overweight, U.S. businesses spent more than $13 billion on health insurance claims, paid sick leave, and disability and life insurance claims that were generated by obese workers. (3) The business-related costs of obesity have increased significantly in the interim, with no end in sight.

Discrimination against overweight workers, although difficult to quantify, is likely to become more prevalent as businesses are forced to shoulder a greater burden of health care costs. The inevitable litigation that follows will add to the indirect costs of America’s “obesity epidemic.”

As health care experts wrestle with an economy that is critically strained by obesity-related issues, American employers and employees will have to contend with the impacts of obesity in their workplaces.

Sources

  1. Flegal K, et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999 – 2008. JAMA. 2010;303(3):235-241
  2. Østbye T, et al. Obesity and workers’ compensation: results from the Duke health and safety surveillance system. Arch Int Med. 2007;167(8):766-773
  3. Thompson D, et al. Estimated economic costs of obesity to U.S. business. American Journal of Health Promotion 1998; 13:120-127
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