By KRISTIE ZOELLER HOWARD, CEBS, CWPD, a senior consultant, employee benefits and certified wellness program director with Longfellow Benefits, a Boston-based employee benefits consultant and broker
Employers can benefit directly by improving employee health through the introduction of obesity prevention programs. Besides the huge financial stake employers have in reducing the incidence of obesity in its workforce, there is another reason for the importance of obesity programs at the worksite. Despite the recent growth in unemployment rates, the vast majority of Americans--more than 139 million--are employed, and Americans spend the majority of their time at work, more than any other single location or activity.
Then consider how, currently, two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese. The cost effects to employers of such a high obesity rate are staggering. Approximately 9.1 percent of all healthcare costs in the United States are related to obesity and overweight. According to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, medical costs are estimated to be $1,429 higher for obese adults than for normal-weight adults.
In addition to the direct medical costs, employers should also be concerned about the indirect costs of decreased productivity and absenteeism associated with obesity. According to the National Business Group on Health, obesity is associated with 39 million lost workdays per year. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that obese employees file twice as many workers' compensation claims and 13 times more lost workdays than their non-obese counterparts.
Because of the unique nature of the obesity problem, unfortunately no silver bullet exists.
What is required is a multidimensional program consisting of both environmental and behavioral interventions. Below are employer strategies that have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing weight among employees and reducing the prevalence of obesity in employee populations.
CREATE A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT
Do an assessment of your worksite environment as it relates to nutrition and physical activity. Are there environmental changes that could contribute to employees making better health choices?
If you have vending machines, be sure that healthy choices are available. Turn the packages around so that nutritional information is visible, or label the items with red, yellow and green stickers based on their nutritional value. If you have a cafeteria, ask your food provider if they use healthy food preparation practices and ask them to publish nutritional information on their menu. Provide only nutritious food options at company meetings and events.
Similarly, what are the opportunities for physical activity at your workplace? If you have stairs, encourage their use with colorful signs, bright paint and good lighting. If it's safe and convenient, encourage employees to ride a bike or walk to work. Negotiate discounts for employees for membership at a nearby health club or fitness facility. Sponsor or promote company sports teams or clubs. Consider sponsoring a local fun run or walk.
EDUCATE AND DISPEL MYTHS
Educating employees on the right way to lose weight will exponentially increase their chances of success. According to the latest science, this means that a program should:
-- Produce a gradual rate of weight loss of up to two pounds per week (losses may be greater at first due to water loss).
-- Guide food choices that not only reduce calories but meet current scientific recommendations for nutritional completeness.
--Create a plan for physical activity that provides a wide range of weight- and health-related benefits.
-- Be sustainable.
Employers should use a variety of media to provide healthy messaging, such as company e-mails and intranet. Offer "lunch and learns" as an opportunity to provide tips on grocery shopping, eating on the go, and live cooking or exercise demonstrations. Let employees know about access to community resources.
GIVE EMPLOYEES THE TOOLS
Help build awareness by providing employees with inexpensive pedometers to track their daily steps, or mark off the distances in and around your workplace. With these tracking tools, employees will not only know how far they've walked, but they can also estimate the calories they've burned and set goals for improvement.
Identify healthy menu options at nearby restaurants, and point employees to reputable Web sites with resources on nutritional information and food tracking, such as www.nutrition.gov and http://www.mypyramid.gov. Some employers place scales throughout the worksite to raise awareness about weight and motivate people to take action.
MOTIVATE WITH TEAM COMPETITIONS AND SUCCESS STORIES
Take advantage of employees' competitive nature and the support and camaraderie that comes with a team challenge. By engaging teams of employees in physical activity and healthy eating challenges, individuals are motivated to do well and will lose more weight with the backing and encouragement of their co-workers.
Highlighting the successes of others is another great way to motivate and create buzz around your program. Create a "wall of fame" or devote a section of your company newsletter that showcases your company's healthiest employees.
ENGAGE AN EXPERT TO DELIVER INDIVIDUALIZED INTERVENTIONS
The most effective weight loss programs involve individual goal-setting and achievement. They make use of exercise and nutrition "prescriptions," whereby participants complete an evaluation and are then given a structured plan that includes specific recommendations for exercise and nutrition.
These services do not necessarily need to come from an outside vendor, but it should come from an expert. Most employers might not have such expertise internally and would therefore hire a vendor to do this.
USE THOUGHTFULLY DESIGNED INCENTIVES
Reward employees by using a combination of incentives based on both participation and outcomes. Use incentives for participation such as door prizes, raffles or points earned toward a larger prize. If a program involves individual goal-setting, include rewards for achieving program goals in your incentive program.
Most incentive programs use positive rewards, commonly called the "carrot" approach. Some examples of "carrots" include cash payments, gift cards, paid time off or reduced medical premium contributions as rewards for participation in wellness programs or good health behaviors. Reduced medical plan contributions has the greatest motive force, according to a 2008 WebMD online survey of 20,000 wellness program participants
Some examples of the "stick," or disincentive, approach, include a medical premium surcharge, salary reduction or job sanctions. Companies that want their employees to perceive the wellness program as a positive should utilize "carrots" as much as possible.
If the incentive effect falls short of expectations, consider utilizing "sticks" to achieve the desired effect. The most important point is that employers should use incentives strategically and systematically with their desired outcomes in mind.
The battle against obesity will no doubt continue to intensify, and employers can do their part to help employees take the steps necessary to manage the problem. Employers who take a stand will not only save money for their company but will improve the health and lives of their employees.
November 1, 2009
Copyright 2009© LRP Publications