Obesity hurts bottom line: university study

The workplace benefits of weight loss
By Andy Shaw
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/19/2007

Employers would benefit greatly from helping employees maintain a healthy weight, new research out of the Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, N.C., has found.

In anonymous health risk and workers’ compensation data gathered from Duke’s own 11,728 employees, researchers found obese employees — those with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 and above — were more than twice as likely to be injured on the job. As a result, the obese incurred about seven times the medical claims costs compared to the non-obese and averaged more than 13 times as many days off work.

“We’ve been doing health risk appraisals annually since 1997, so we had a lot of good data to work from on a wide range of staff from gardeners to professors,” said study leader Truls Ostbye, a Norwegian-born medical doctor and full-time researcher. “We of course expected to find a relationship between obesity and workplace costs, but what surprised us was just how high those costs were.”

Ostbye said employers traditionally view obesity as an employee’s personal problem but the Duke findings suggest there’s good economic reason for attacking obesity with workplace intervention.

“It can be part of the agenda to make businesses a safer and healthier place to work,” said Ostbye. “And there are a number of companies that are already acting on that agenda by providing things like more opportunities for employees to exercise and offering healthier food in their cafeterias.”

While the study is American and done in a region known for fatty foods and overweight people, Ostbye feels it has meaning for Canada. Prior to taking up his position at Duke, he was a health care researcher at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

So does Ed Buffett, president and CEO of Buffett and Company Worksite Wellness based in Whitby, Ont.

“It’s very nice to see scientific evidence for what some of us have known full well for a long time,” said Buffett. “But what’s really relevant about the study for Canada are the figures on absenteeism, the days lost from work — 13 times more days than the non-obese. And the last time I looked, absenteeism was a $16-billion-a-year problem in Canada.”

A two-pronged attack

At Duke, Ostbye’s co-investigator, John Dement, professor of occupational and environmental medicine, said organizations north and south of the border need a two-pronged attack.

“By targeting obesity and workplace risks simultaneously, we can reduce absenteeism, increase the overall health of our workers and decrease the cost of health care for all employees,” said Dement.

Encouragingly, Dement’s and Ostbye’s study suggests workplace risks to obese people tend to result in a rather narrow range of injuries and body parts. Most often they hurt their lower extremity, back, wrist or hand. And most often their injuries were caused by falls, slips and lifting.

Duke officials have already instituted a number of programs to reduce risks and promote a healthier lifestyle. It has the advantage of being a research and treatment centre for the obese.

“We do have the expertise here to treat individuals,” said Ostbye. “But we need to do more research on what kinds of interventions are cost effective in the general workplace.”

Software firm has success

One company Ostbye will take a closer look at is software firm SAS, partly because of what it offers overweight employees and partly because of the subtlety of its approach. At SAS headquarters in the nearby town of Cary, N.C., employees can use a well-equipped fitness complex, take in lunchtime healthy eating seminars and seek the advice of SAS staff nutritionists.

“SAS promotes a healthy lifestyle right in the workplace and without making people feel guilty or forcing (them) into diets,” said Ostbye. “So they’ve made it both a healthy and an attractive place to work.”

That’s just the kind of workplace Buffett and his company’s “evidenced-base work site wellness programs” help their clients devise. Buffett admits to being an evangelist who found his calling after suffering an unhealthy-lifestyle heart attack more than a decade ago.

“That’s my motivation alright,” said Buffett. “But the one thing that has always hamstrung us was the lack of scientific data that would confirm what we intuitively knew. So when I see a report like the Duke study, my reaction is hallelujah. Because when you are talking to CFOs and corporate leadership, and even though they are Canadian, they are all from Missouri (the ‘show-me’ state). Show me, they say. So information like this for them is very, very powerful.”

Andy Shaw is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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