Should employers really care about obesity? After all, if revenues stay “fat” and costs are kept “lean”, what does it matter if their employees put on some pounds? There are numerous misconceptions about the growing global epidemic of obesity, and like donuts, each of these notions has some very large holes. And because many employers buy into these misconceptions, they do not address one of the major issues that may be holding back their businesses.
Here are 7 of the biggest misconceptions about obesity:
Misconception # 1: Obesity is not really an issue in my organization
Reality: Obesity has become so widespread today, almost no organization is exempt from the problem. According to a first-of-its-kind 2013 study of 188 countries by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, roughly 30% of the world’s overall population is either overweight or obese. Among adults, that figure rises to over 40%, and the numbers are higher in 1st World and developing countries. The study also found that the rise in obesity rates over the last three decades has been “substantial and widespread”. The rates are especially alarming among children, a large percentage of whom will enter adulthood overweight or obese.
The fact is, obesity is all around us. Even if your particular organization has somehow managed to avoid having any obese workers, there is a good chance your vendors, suppliers, subsidiaries, or other locations are impacted. Clearly, hiring only slim employees is not a viable solution. Aside from the legal implications of such hiring practices, you are also seriously limiting your available pool of workers, and likely missing out on talented individuals who could make major contributions to your business. Not to mention, there is no guarantee that a slim worker won’t gain weight after you hire them. And this brings us to the second major misconception about obesity…
Misconception # 2: Obesity is all about the individual choices of the employee
Reality: It is easy for us as humans to judge a person based on their appearance. For example, when you see an obese person, you might be tempted to conclude that this person is just lazy and/or has no self-control. How many times have you heard people say, “all you have to do to get into shape is work out and eat right. Calories in, calories out, it’s that simple.” Not exactly…
Think about it; do you really think that the global obesity epidemic we have on our hands is the result of a sudden, collective decision by billions of people to become lazy and give up their self-control? Obviously not.
Your caloric intake and its impact on your weight depends largely on how much you eat, as well as the type of food you put into your body, just as the number of calories you burn depends on the type and frequency of your physical activity.
What is missed in all of this is that eating and physical activity do not occur in a vacuum. These behaviors are governed by cultural, environmental, social, and financial factors. In other words, humans tend to eat what they have available to them, what other people around them are eating, and what types of food they can afford to purchase. Many of these factors are present in a typical workplace. And this brings us to the third misconception about obesity…
Misconception # 3: There’s not much employers can do to have an impact on obesity
Reality: The average employee spends roughly one-third of their available hours at work. This means that their workplace plays a major role in what they decide to eat and drink, and what type of physical activity they engage in. But it doesn’t stop with just the hours spent at work.
The workplace impacts your employees’ commute time, sleeping patterns, social lives, the level of energy they have to exercise during off hours, their levels of stress, and many other factors. The workplace also has a major impact on what financial choices the worker can afford to make when purchasing food, which in turn indirectly affects the weight of family members as well.
No matter how you slice it, the workplace has a major impact on the rest of the life of the employee…and in turn, obesity. If a workplace is contributing to weight gain among your employees, employers should take note and look at what can be done to address this issue. And this brings us to obesity misconception #4…
Misconception # 4: Obesity doesn’t really have much effect on organizations
Reality: Being overweight – even by just a few pounds – can have a profound negative impact on the health of your employees. Obesity has been linked to several physical, psychological and social problems. These include:
- Musculoskeletal Issues (e.g., joint and back problems)
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Heart Disease
- Decreased Self-Image
These issues can contribute to decreased productivity, higher medical costs, lower employee morale, and in turn, a negative impact on revenues and the overall bottom line of the organization.
Multiple studies have shown that obesity can lead to workers missing more days, as well as being less productive while on the job. For example, a Duke University study showed that obesity-driven absenteeism (as well as lower productivity while present) costs U.S. employers a total of $73 billion each year.
Another study looked at the difference in healthcare costs between normal-weight and obese employees. The study found that the normal-weight employees cost organizations an average of roughly $3,800 per year, while those who are overweight to morbidly obese can cost up to $8,000 per year. Broken down, the study showed that each body mass index (BMI) point above the normal weight range costs an average of roughly $200 annually per employee.
There is no denying the fact that obesity has a negative impact on organizations. Whether it be through higher absentee rates, lower productivity while working, or reduced employee morale, obesity costs U.S. organizations billions of dollars every year.
Misconception # 5: Obesity has very little to do with the management, operations, finance, and overall direction of the organization
Reality: The weight and health of your employees can be a strong indication of the overall functionality of the organization. While overweight employees do not necessarily equate to employees that lack discipline, dedication and work ethic, they can be an indication of the cultural, social, and financial environment within your organization and surrounding community. For various reasons, employees may not be willing to openly express their views on issues within their workplace, but weight and health problems may be tell-tale signs of what is really going on.
Misconception # 6: Employee turnover is high anyway, so obesity doesn’t really impact my organization
Reality: In some industries – such as information technology (IT) and others in which job opportunities are in abundance, new offers come up all the time and employees change jobs frequently. This is also true in fast food, retail and other industries where many of the positions are considered entry level. Many employers wonder what is the point of investing in preventing employee obesity when their workers will be gone so quickly anyway. There are several problems with this line of thinking.
First of all, many of the effects of obesity are realized almost immediately – such as back problems, psychological issues, chronic illnesses, and other productivity-lowering factors. Second, the fact that you have high employee turnover in your organization is not a sign of a solid and sustainable business model. In fact, it is possible that obesity within the organization is a contributing factor to high turnover. When employees don’t feel healthy where they work, they will naturally look for better opportunities.
It is well-known that lower employee turnover is a sign of higher employee morale and greater productivity. In addition, it is much more cost-effective to retain employees (who eventually become very good at their jobs) rather than to continually spend money training up new ones. Given these facts, it should be the goal of all organizations to reduce employee turnover. And one of the ways to do so might be to address issues of obesity within your workforce.
Misconception # 7: There are simple, fast and easy ways to solve obesity
Each year, new books, fitness programs, exercise equipment and diet plans come onto the market. There are so many of them out there, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But with so many “solutions” out there, why does the problem of obesity keep getting worse? The short answer is that “quick fix” solutions simply don’t work.
Sure, a new diet fad might help someone temporarily lose weight, but most of the time, they put the weight right back on within a short period of time. Even medical procedures like gastric bypass surgery are only effective for certain individuals, and they require drastic accompanying lifestyle adjustments to keep the weight off long-term. Real, lasting change in obesity rates requires cultural changes – particularly in the workplace, where individuals spend such a large percentage of their time.
There is a common expression first coined by author Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, “If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” At the end of the day, the lifeblood of any organization is its employees. And trying to win with unhealthy and overweight employees is like trying to win the Super Bowl with a team of chronically injured football players.
Bottom Line: If you (or your organization) does not see the connection between the health of your employees and the health of your business, you run the risk of being left behind in an increasingly competitive marketplace.