Prevent obesity in the workplace to reduce costs, research says

Obesity in the workplace can be a complex and sensitive topic. Excess body weight is one of the most common health conditions in today’s workforce, and it's also a public health issue.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) reviewed more than 1,400 articles published between 2011 and 2016 that studied obesity in the workplace. Based on the findings, the researchers developed several recommendations for employers to manage obesity among workers to improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.

Their findings were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in January 2018.

How obesity and workers' compensation are connected

The study reported several ways that obesity and its associated health conditions adversely impact the workplace. Obesity is associated with sleep disorders, increased depressive symptoms, lower productivity and absenteeism. It’s considered a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis and back pain, which are some of the most common workplace injuries.

The research showed an indirect association between obesity and workplace injury rates — workers who meet the definition of obesity file more workers’ compensation claims and require more days off to recover before returning to work.

In a Duke University study , workers with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40 filed twice the number of workers’ compensation claims as non-obese workers. They had seven times higher medical costs from those claims and lost 13 times more days of work from work injury or work illness than non-obese workers.

A University of Texas-Austin study showed that for workers with major injuries, a higher body mass index was associated with more expensive workers’ compensation claims. Recovery can take longer, complicated by weight-related medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Focus on prevention at work

Obesity has high costs both in terms of a worker’s health and costs to the employer. What can an employer do to address obesity in the workplace? After reviewing the research, the ACOEM panel recommended that employers tackle the issue through both prevention and treatment.

Workplaces can help employees reach or maintain a healthy weight by designing the work environment to encourage physical movement and healthy eating.

The types of short-term lifestyle modifications typically seen in workplace wellness programs can have modest results. However, it can be a challenge for workers to maintain the behavior after the challenge is over. Instead, ongoing interventions like wellness and nutrition classes, fitness club membership discounts and healthy options in the vending machine could make a lasting impact.

For more on effective wellness programs, see our tips for starting and building your workplace wellness program and wellness program best practices.

For more findings from the ACOEM study, see the full ‘Obesity in the workplace’ report .

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