​Addressing obesity through health plan designs

Employees with this chronic condition spend more on health services and medication, so it just makes fiscal sense for employers to address the issue

​Addressing obesity through health plan designs
Credit: ayzek (Shutterstock)

Ingrained in our society, obesity is one of the most prevalent and misunderstood conditions. In fact, many people may not know obesity is actually a chronic medical disease requiring ongoing management and care.

About one in four Canadians are living with obesity, with a number of underlying factors — socioeconomic status, ethnicity, immigration, physical activity, diet and environmental reasons, according to the Canadian Obesity Network, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Placing blame on an individual living with obesity is often unfounded, and ineffective weight bias can create more stress, leading to increased blood pressure, lower self-esteem and unhealthy weight control practices, according to the 2012 study Fighting Obesity or Obese Persons? by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Issue not about one-size-fits-all solutions

Addressing obesity in the workplace can be overwhelming — especially when an employee’s health is a personal matter and can be a sensitive topic for most. For this reason, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Employees’ needs differ based on each person and his circumstances.

With so many avenues available, every organization has an opportunity to find the solution that works best for both employees’ health and the bottom line.

It’s also important to differentiate between force and support. It is not an employer’s job to initiate action for employees living with obesity. However, an employer has a responsibility to put support tools in place to ensure options are available to help manage obesity — similar to other chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Next, ensuring a workplace environment that is proactive rather than reactive with chronic conditions is also key. Putting health and wellness programs in place could thwart the development of conditions that are directly related to obesity.

These conditions come with their own set of costs (as of result of issues such as absenteeism or lost productivity) and associated risks.

The benefits of addressing obesity

Corporate culture has been proven to have an impact on overall business success, and failure. Canadians spend the majority of their time at work. Going to a workplace and being met with ridicule, discrimination or any sort of unpleasantness has been known to affect an employee’s work — happy employees are more productive in the workforce.

Supporting employees to create a corporate culture of inclusiveness, support and understanding for addressing chronic conditions such as obesity will ultimately make an organization and its employees happier and more productive.

There is also a strong business case for supporting these employees. There is a linear relationship between obesity and the number of workers’ compensation claims, lost workdays, medical claim costs and indemnity claim costs, according to the 2007 study Obesity and Workers’ Compensation: Results from the Duke Health and Safety Surveillance System by Ostbye, T., Dement, J. and Krause, K. This means employers supporting employees living with obesity will directly improve their bottom line, and enable employees to keep working.

Employees who live with obesity spend more on health services and medications than people of healthy weight. It simply makes fiscal sense to address obesity and mitigate these costs.

First steps involve employee education, trust

An important first step in addressing this chronic condition is education. Some employers have wellness web portals where employees can glean information related to a variety of health and wellness topics.

Including factual information on obesity can educate staff and empower employees living with obesity to learn more about their disease.

Whether it’s a web portal, a corkboard in the lunchroom or a monthly health and wellness newsletter, getting reliable information out to employees is crucial in helping them manage their health.

Another key factor is privacy. Employees may be hesitant to work with their employer to manage their obesity out of fear their personal information won’t be kept private. Ensuring that health information is confidential and staff trusts this are key in supporting employees managing obesity or any health condition for that matter.

When there is trust between an employee and an employer, there is an opportunity for open and honest communication on key concerns that could be affecting employees.

Proven workplace wellness programs

Getting employees to participate in workplace wellness plans can be difficult. Avoiding the use of programs that place pressure, publicize results or create any sort of alienation can help increase employee participation.

Those employers that have the best results with wellness programs have invested in understanding the landscape of employees’ health.

Employers can sponsor health-risk assessment tools to customize wellness models to address the needs of employees. Further, this information can help employers target benefit plans to address the needs of each employee.

Most insurance carriers nowadays have dedicated case managers to help employees with high-cost medications to treat their chronic conditions. These case managers will check in with employees to ensure their medication is effective and they have all the right support systems in place to help manage their chronic condition.

Employees will be more likely to work with their employer if they have individualized programs built in their best interest, with dedicated wellness representatives.

Organizations that really take health and wellness seriously have also implemented a top-down approach. This is when senior leadership not only “talks the talk” but “walks the walk.”

Management embraces health and wellness at this level by exemplifying a healthy lifestyle in all workplace settings. For example, if breakfast is brought in for employees, healthy options such as granola or fruit can be brought in, instead of donuts and croissants.

Another example is walking as a team to a meeting outside of the office, rather than driving to the destination.

Little steps like these show employees senior leadership is participating in workplace wellness too, and it builds a sense of inclusion amongst the workforce.

Evolving perceptions around obesity

There have been several great successes when it comes to changing perceptions of other diseases, but there is still a ways to go in creating a better understanding of obesity. Recognizing obesity as a chronic medical disease is the first step in mitigating associated costs.

Employers that provide customized, inclusive and supportive programs will alleviate private plan costs and, ultimately, create a happier and more productive workforce.

And benefit advisors have the expertise to help organizations navigate plans and can work alongside a company to understand the various routes.

Sarah Beech is president of Accompass, a benefits, investment and compensation firm in Toronto. This article was written in collaboration with Novo Nordisk Canada. For more information, visit www.accompass.com.

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