by Catarina Rivera
Obesity is not just a health issue; it’s an economic issue as well. Obesity costs private US companies an estimated $45 billion annually for medical expenses and work loss. A study found that 67.8 percent of the cost was due to presenteeism, or reduced productivity due to illness. This is consistent with a 2010 study from the Netherlands where obese workers reported taking more sick days and feeling less productive than peers. Obesity is hurting our economy, and businesses need to take an active role in fighting this epidemic. As businesses take on this problem, they might develop innovative new strategies for reducing obesity and increase their bottom line along the way.
The precedent for requiring business involvement in the obesity crisis has already been set in Japan. In 2008, Japan issued governmental guidelines for waist measurements for men and women. Companies and local governments that fail to meet benchmarks incur fines. Similarly, Alabama passed a law in 2008 that introduced a fine for obese state employees who fail to improve their health within a year of an initial screening.
Not everyone thinks companies benefit from fighting obesity. According to Forbes, Eric Finkelstein, a health economist, believes that businesses do not have a vested interest in dealing with obesity because employees are largely transient, only staying at a job for an average of 4.5 years. Therefore, they won’t see the benefits of helping those employees. Also, obesity-related health problems may take a while to emerge. This opinion does not take into account the loss in productive work time and revenue that companies experience. Improving health and wellness in employees has the potential to yield benefits even within a 4.5 year window.
One issue to note is the debate over whether paying for weight-loss surgery actually benefits companies. Obese employees who qualify for this surgery are high-cost employees with high rates of absenteeism. Employers risk their leaving the job before the costs are recouped. Bariatric surgery is a weak strategy for companies addressing obesity because it is high-cost and low-impact, concentrating a lot of resources on individuals. It would be more effective for companies to implement comprehensive strategies affecting all employees, such as providing health coaches or creating healthy lunch options. Many companies already have in-house wellness programs and have found that penalties work better than incentives in fostering employee participation. These companies should expand their programs and share best practices.
The United States is home to 139 of the 2010 Global Fortune 500 companies. Clearly, we have a talented business sector and we need to maintain our strength. Obesity is a large obstacle for our continued economic growth, and businesses need to play an active role in curbing the epidemic. Complex problems like obesity can only be solved by an alliance across all sectors. Companies need to recognize the negative impact obesity has on their bottom line and start focusing on reducing obesity in their workforce. When businesses apply their skills to the obesity crisis, innovative solutions may emerge.
This is part of a series exploring the current obesity epidemic.
To learn more about Catarina Rivera, visit her website.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.