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Employers, finding obesity weighs on bottom lines, helps employees make healthy choices

Apr 26, 2012

As part of long-term effort to address obesity and the health problems that come along with it, MetroWest Medical Center (MWMC) sponsored a 12-week program for employees ontopics such as healthy eating and a team-based walking challenge, Inall, 52 employees lost more than 500 pounds over the during the threemonths, said Diane Barnaby, health and wellness coordinator at MWMC, which employs 2,400 people in four locations.

There is little doubt that obesity is a costly problem for the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently put the price tag of direct medical costs alone at $147 billion annually. And a Duke University study suggested businesses absorb $73 billion indirect and indirect costs of obesity annually, including absenteeism andlost productivity.

In fact, an obese employee takes 13 more sick days a year than a comparable healthy-weight worker, said Kristie Howard, vice president at Longfellow Benefits in Boston, and is twice as likely to file workers’ compensation claims.

“Obesity is definitely an issue businesses are looking at veryclosely. There are a lot of reasons for that, including bottom-linereasons,” Howard said.

Howard’s firm recommends obesity-focused wellness programs focus on lifestyle changes rather than rapid weight loss.

“Biggest Loser-style challenges are a lot of fun, but slower weightloss is healthier and more likely to be long-lasting,” she said. “Themost effective thing a company can do is to build that culture of healthand give employees the tools to make positive choices.”

Many businesses have The workplace is an important part of theobesity solution not only because employees spend much of their timethere, but also because of the power of social networks, said Tom Abshire,senior vice president of marketing and marketing engagement for VirginHealthMiles. Having obese friends makes someone more than twice aslikely to be obese themselves, he noted.

“It speaks to the power of the relationships we have to form habits, good or bad, in our lives,” Abshire said.

With 75 percent of health care costs tied to lifestyle diseases suchas heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, the stakes are high foremployers as well, with one study commissioned by the company suggestingcorporate profits could suffer by 10 to 25 percent unless benefits-costgrowth is brought under control.

HealthMiles works to help employers tap into that social power, usingteam and individual challenges to motivate employees with directfinancial incentives focused on physical activity. Just increasing theamount of exercise an individual does--the current recommendation is 150minutes per week — reduces the risk of obtaining Type 2 diabetes by 50percent.

At Fairchild Semiconductor in Portland, Maine, employee benefits manager Kate Hutchinsonsaid using incentives to engage its 2,000 employees has been far moreeffective than earlier, more aggressive efforts to compel people to takepart in wellness efforts. Fairchild rolled out Virgin HealthMiles lastSeptember and Hutchinson knew the company had found the right approach.

“People are very engaged and are growing their social connections andlogging in with their iPhones,” she said, adding that the company hasbecome “very transparent” with employees about the rising cost ofbenefits and the competitive advantage a company can gain by addressingthose costs. “With this approach, employees feel like part of thesolution. People are really making changes.”

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