The True Costs of Obesity in the Workplace Are Becoming Clear

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For years, health officials have sounded the alarm about the health risks of obesity, especially as the rates of significantly overweight children and adults have ballooned in recent years. Officially, more than one-third (35.1%) of adults over the age of 20 in the United States are classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Including those people, 69% of adults are considered overweight. Among children, the numbers are also concerning: 18.4% of adolescents ages 12-19 are considered obese. The percentage of obese children ages 2-5 is 12.1%, and for ages 6-11 is 18%. It’s not until recently that researches have begun to study the effects of obesity on the business world, on top of the concerns within the health field. Like any disease, obesity has significant detrimental side effects — and they’re not just affecting the people with the condition.

The costs of obesity in terms of health care are fairly well known, though the numbers grow each year. The general costs are estimated to be about 10% of all medical spending in the United States per year, and largely come from treating obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. A new study to be published later this year estimates that obesity raised medical costs by $315.8 billion in 2010, which equals about $3,508 for each obese person and represents an increase in spending of about 48% since 2005. According to Bloomberg, those costs include doctors’ appointments, hospital stays, prescription drugs, and home health care.

The effects on businesses, however, are only just starting to be discovered. One of the issues with quantifying the losses because of obesity is because data is sometimes difficult to gather accurately. If an obese person misses a day of work because of illness, for example, it’s not necessarily going to be related to their weight. However, more studies are supporting that theory with concrete data.

For example, a study from a few years ago shows that people who are obese are less productive that their normal-bodied peers. In the study including 341 manufacturing employees, researchers found that moderately obese or extremely obese workers (with a body mass index equal to or greater than 35) experienced the greatest health-related limitations while at work. The researchers called this “presenteeism,” and found that the obese workers experienced a 4.2% health-related loss in productivity, 1.18% more than all other employees. Overall, this equated to a company loss of $506 annually per obese employee.

More recent research explores how much absenteeism among obese employees affects a business’ bottom line. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford published the study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and found that being obese (though not just being overweight) is associated with a significant amount of days absent from work. In general, obese employees miss 1.1 to 1.7 more days of work compared to their normal-weight colleagues. Nationwide, that absenteeism is estimated to cost $8.65 billion per year, accounting for 9.3% of all absenteeism costs in the country per year.

The study observed workplace absenteeism in each state, and found that obesity accounts for between 6.5% and 12.6% of total absenteeism costs in the workplace. In states like Wyoming, that equals costs of about $14.4 million, all the way up to $907 million for California. That absenteeism is a huge problem because the cost to employers, especially over time, creates a drag on the economy, Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center, told Bloomberg. “The employee is most likely getting paid for it, but there was no work done on it, and there was a cost to the employer,” Andreyeva explained.

The research could lead to more large-scale policy changes in the future, if public officials and business leaders seek solutions to curbing obesity rates, Andreyeva told Yale News. “Understanding all economic costs of obesity, including lost productivity, is critical for policymakers working on obesity prevention at any level,” noted the lead author. “Quantifying not just obesity-related health care costs but also economic costs is essential for informed decision making.”

Obesity is a problem for everyone, as health care costs are often distributed equally among participants in private and public health insurance companies. Everyone — large or small — is paying for related care in their premiums. The 2015 report from the government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee acknowledges that widespread changes will likely have to come from paradigm shifts in lifestyle and eating habits, undertaken by the population at large. To spur that change onward, the committee also proposed taxing sugary drinks and foods in an effort to limit their consumption.

It likely won’t solve all the issues, or even a majority of them. But obesity isn’t just affecting those who are overweight — it’s affecting the health care costs of everyone, and the overall health of businesses everywhere. Regardless of the causes, it’s time to work harder to find solutions.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS

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