Commentary: Obesity affects one in three Americans and the companies that employ them. It is a serious health risk linked to over 60 conditions including depression, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Recently recognized by the American Heart Association as a disease, obesity accounts for 21% of U.S. medical spending overall, a staggering $190 billion a year.[i]

It can be argued that obesity has the single greatest impact on an employer’s healthcare costs.[ii] Yet, when it comes to managing health across the workforce, obesity is not typically addressed with the same intention and methodology applied to other major risks and diseases. 

Also see:Obesity’s disease label could spell trouble for employers.”

For example, diabetes is linked to serious conditions such as heart disease and kidney failure. Yet when managed effectively, diabetes may not have a negative impact to an individual’s well-being, or the company’s bottom line. Because of this, it is the standard and accepted process to address diabetes in the workforce using what I like to call the “playbook” for population health management, which includes three essential steps:

1. Identify individuals with the disease or at risk; 

2. Offer individuals a select number of programs clinically proven to work; and

3. Engage individuals into the program by funding, incentivizing and guiding them.

This playbook isn’t just used for diabetes. It is commonly used to address heart disease, depression, metabolic syndrome and hypertension — and obesity is linked to all of these.

Yet how is obesity most commonly addressed across the workforce?  Employees fend for themselves in the consumer market, trying to find something that might work. Employers may even give them access to an array of programs as perks with a coupon or discount. But the “playbook” approach is not widely utilized in the workplace.  

Also see:Wellness programs ‘massively overscreening’ people.”

Like other major risks and diseases, it isn’t enough to address obesity in the workforce simply by offering perks to motivate employees to take action. 

Now, some employers are intentionally and methodically combating obesity and its impact on their companies — and they are grabbing the playbook to do it.  Specifically, they are taking these actions:

1. Identify overweight or obese individuals through biometric screenings, health risk assessments, coach/physician referrals or self-reporting. Honing in on these higher-risk individuals can be effective because a little bit of weight loss can go a long way.

Experts, like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, agree losing just a modest 5% of body weight — for someone who is overweight or obese — can have a meaningful impact to improve an individual’s health, including lowering blood pressure, preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes, improving sleep and creating better energy levels and mental health — all of which can impact an employer’s bottom line.

Also see:Progressive companies take fresh look at what wellness really means.”

2. Offer individuals a select number of weight loss programs that are clinically proven to work. Narrowing the options down can minimize consumer confusion, frustration and even decision paralysis. 

A recent study conducted by independent researchers from Johns Hopkins University and published in last April’s edition of Annals of Internal Medicine compared the efficacy of commercial weight management programs. The results showed there are programs clinically proven to deliver meaningful weight loss.   

3. Engage these individuals into the program by funding a portion of the program, incentivizing individuals to participate with wellness points, premium reduction or cash rewards, and guidingindividuals to specific programs based on needs and preferences.

These three key steps give employers a baseline for progress and a chance to combat not only obesity, but a variety of related medical conditions as well. With companies’ physical and financial health firmly in focus, the playbook provides the blueprint for building a healthier, more productive workforce.

Tricia Kendall is vice president of the healthcare business at Jenny Craig, which develops strategic partnerships with employers, wellness companies and health plans.

[i] Cawley j, Meyerhoefer C. The medical care costs of obesity: an instrumental variables approach.  J Health Econ, 2012;31:219-30.

[ii] $51,000 in workers compensation costs for obese workers vs. $7,500 in claims from non-obese workers.  Published in Archives of Internal Medicine, quoted in SHRM “Declining Health of U.S. Workers is Driving Up Employer Costs: Obesity has largest impact on employers’ health care expenditures, 4/20/2011.


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