By Ted Kyle

Employers are beginning to realize that obesity is not merely a problem of health costs. The most important effect of obesity comes from its impact on competitiveness and productivity.

A Competitive Necessity

The cost of ignoring obesity is steep. The Milken Institute has a new estimate that pegs the total economic impact in the U.S. at $1.7 trillion. Notably, most of that is indirect costs that hit employers. For example, lost productivity, work absences, disability, and diminished competitiveness are all critical factors. Altogether, those indirect costs add up to more than $1.2 trillion.

Direct healthcare costs attributable to obesity are hardly insignificant, but they are less than a third of the total economic impact.

Wellness That Falls Short

Unfortunately, some employers have responded to obesity in a superficial way. Some wellness programs offer little more than superficial advice about living a healthy lifestyle. In a recent study, Kimberly Jinette found that wellness programs are not meeting the needs of employees who are actually living with obesity. And thus, participation and success rates are disappointing.

In fact, another recent and careful study of a large employer’s workplace wellness program found it had no effect. None. Not on medical costs, health behaviors, productivity, or health status. Why? Because the employees who sign up for these programs are mainly the ones who are already healthy. For employees with a real health problem – like obesity and its complications – these programs are unhelpful.

Worse, those programs may have perverse effects. Some of them promote stigma and discrimination. Susanne Täuber and colleagues explain in a recent paper:

Together, our research identifies workplace health promotion programs as potent catalysts of weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, especially when they emphasize individual responsibility for health outcomes.

Ready for a Competitive Edge

Fortunately, many employers are ready to turn the page. More effective employers are focusing on the total well-being of employees. Not superficial wellness programs and not arbitrary health measures in isolation. The result can be a healthier work environment, a healthier workforce, and a competitive advantage.

In the next installment of this series we’ll explore some of the more effective approaches for addressing obesity in the workforce.

Ted Kyle is a pharmacist and healthcare innovation professional who serves on the Board of Directors for the Obesity Action Coalition and advises The Obesity Society on advocacy. His widely-read daily commentary, published at conscienhealth.org/news, reaches an audience of more than 15,000 thought leaders in health and obesity.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints express by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, its board or its employees.