What An Employer Can Do To Tackle Obesity In The Workplace

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The world is getting heavier. According to the World Health Organization, close to 40 percent of adults were overweight in 2016, with 13 percent obese. And we’re piling on the pounds: These rates have tripled since 1975.

In the U.S. alone, the societal cost of obesity is estimated at about $92,000 per person over their lifetime. That total covers costs related to short-term disability and loss of productivity, both of which have a significant impact on businesses.

“Weight is not just a societal issue – it’s really becoming an employer challenge,” says Stephanie Pronk, Senior Vice President, National Health Transformation, Aon.

As organizations battle increasing health care costs – from rising premiums to absenteeism – addressing the overall health of their employee population is fast becoming a C-suite issue.

“Weight is a challenge for almost every organization, and it can be very costly to address. It is also very preventable,” says Pronk.


In Depth

According to Aon’s 2017 Medical Trends Survey, the three biggest risk factors expected to drive future health care claims are high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and physical inactivity – all associated with being overweight. A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Health Prevention found that companies incurred an average cost of $3,830 per year for “normal weight” employees, compared with $8,067 for obese employees.

This means an increase in medical bills, sick days, short-term disability and workers’ compensation claims. Diabetes alone costs employers more than $20 billion a year, and the growing number of overweight young people means that this figure can only be expected to grow.

Best-Laid Plans

Increasingly, health care management plans are expanding to include wellness programs. In 2017, Aon surveyed HR professionals to gauge how they were approaching their health care plans. Of the 59 percent of companies that said they would make changes to their employee health management plans in the coming year, one-third said they were adding wellness programs.

These programs can have a number of components. Aon’s survey revealed that the most popular approaches were:

  • Rewards and recognition
  • Flexible work hours
  • Availability of healthy food
  • Standing desks
  • Team-based challenges

However, designing and implementing effective wellness programs can be difficult. Craig Dolezal, Senior Vice President, Aon, emphasizes the need for employers to think a bit differently than in years past: “Employers need to respond to changing employee needs, deliver on the real value of health, and drive change and disruption into the health care ecosystem in order to deliver positive outcomes for employers, employees, and their families.”

To really impact the weight of the workforce, companies must develop robust, multi-faceted plans that push people towards better health and weight outcomes. However, they must also be careful to avoid mistakes that might alienate, discourage or even harm employees.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Workplace Weight Management


Create workplaces that encourage healthy choices and physical activity: Because employees spend most of their time at work, companies need to promote an environment that encourages healthy behaviors and has policies and procedures that promote good health. This may include offering healthy food choices in company cafeterias, or simply encouraging employees to get up and walk around at regular intervals. According to Pronk, “This can actually increase their productivity as well as their physical fitness. There’s a rule of thumb that says every nine minutes, you should get up and move. Otherwise you’re going to lack concentration.”

In addition to program design, simple ways to create a more activity-friendly workplace include installing standing desks and holding standing and walking meetings. Even something as simple as moving printer stations away from people helps encourage more movement. “How you create the space within the work environment becomes really important,” says Pronk.

Think like a marketer: Exercise and dieting can be a hard sell to employees. Business leaders should communicate information about health and wellness initiatives in ways that encourage positive action.

This can involve placing messaging about wellness in strategic areas, like at the foot of the stairs or on elevator doors, to encourage exercise. It can mean using gamification to challenge employees to a day without sugar or an activity scavenger hunt. Around these types of activities, companies can also help employees set achievable short-term goals and establish metrics to help them monitor their progress.

Do promote provider involvement: While it’s down to the individual to make that commitment to become healthier, employer-sponsored wellness plans can – and should –encourage health care providers to get involved. This can include fostering collaboration between physicians, dietitians and behavior specialists, and scheduling annual preventative exams.


Don’t make broad assumptions about health: Although weight can cause or exacerbate other health issues, some individuals might be “healthier” at higher weights.  Broadly encouraging people to lose weight without considering their personal health risk profile could lead to other health issues. Understanding needs on an individual level is vital if a health program is to be successful. “We’re not trying to discriminate against lifestyles – the overall goal is about getting people to a healthier state,” says Pronk.

Don’t forget about other kinds of wellness: Wellbeing is multidimensional – incorporating physical, social, emotional and financial factors. Emphasizing one at the expense of the others can do more harm than good. For example, if participation in a weight-loss program leads to increased anxiety in participants, then it may not be good for them or their employers.

Businesses should encourage programs that address multiple aspects of wellbeing; for example, a company soccer league can cater to employees’ social and physical needs. “There is a big movement in the U.S., moving away from just physical wellness towards overall wellbeing,” says Pronk. “These programs need to become broader and more all-encompassing.”

Don’t force wellbeing programs onto participants: Companies should offer support to employees when they want to make healthy choices, but they shouldn’t force them into programs they are unhappy about participating in. Demoralizing staff through enforced health drives could impact productivity even more negatively than obesity.

As with smoking-cessation or other behavior-modification programs, simply telling an individual to stop doing something isn’t always the best course of action. “Simply saying, ‘Don’t Smoke!’ doesn’t work. Use evidence-based interventions and leverage behavioral economic principles to motivate behavior change,” says Ron Goetzel, Director, Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Vice-President of Consulting and Applied Research at IBM Watson Health.

Instead, organizations should think about the health of their workforce as a “business imperative”. Dolezal explains that employers have not only the opportunity – but the responsibility – to drive a conversation with their workforce about wellbeing across all dimensions. Programs that are implemented should use: “A combination of high-touch / high-tech support, to drive holistic wellbeing for each employee and family member.” When this is successful, “the payoff is more satisfied and engaged employees, and that’s good for the health of the business.”

Truly Healthy Means Consistently Healthy

As obesity rates and medical costs continue to rise across the globe, organizations should look to new approaches to help improve their employees’ health.

“We’re getting smarter about understanding what people need, meeting them where they are and focusing on what their everyday experience is like,” says Pronk. “Only then can we create the right type of program that will work for them, so that they can sustain that behavior over time.”


Talking Points

“We have found physical workplace to be one of the top three factors affecting performance and job satisfaction. Personnel costs significantly outweigh the costs for design, construction, maintenance and operations. Addressing occupant health channels resources toward reducing the largest line item in the 30-year costs of a building – the personnel – and therefore offers a meaningful return on investment” – Paul Scialla, Founder, International Wellbeing Institute; Founder and CEO, Delos

“Business leaders, supervisors, and employees can all take steps to reduce stress and help employees cope with difficult situations. Workplace policies, company benefits, supervisor support, and employee awareness can all shape a workplace culture that buoys an employee’s emotional health” – Terri Dougherty, Editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

Further Reading