According to the Commons Health Committee, the number of obese people in the UK has risen by 400 per cent in the past 25 years.
And while all the personal issues that go along with weight – body image, judgements about food consumption, health and lifestyle choices – were previously regarded as none of an employer’s business, some influential US businesses and health advocates are now calculating what the rising rates of obesity are costing the economy.
The price of a hefty workforce is huge in the US. This is according to figures from the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity (ICHEO), an US group founded two years ago by 30 Fortune 500 companies, which teamed up with health providers and insurance companies.
Among their literature is a startling statistic from the American Journal of Health Promotion, which estimates the total cost of obesity to US companies to be $13bn (£7bn) per year.
ICHEO says obesity-related illnesses represent 8 to 9 per cent of claims costs at an average company.
LuAnn Heinen, ICHEO director, said the first steps towards reducing the costs of obesity involve looking at three areas of business: in-house cafeterias, vending machines and general food policies.
Having such things as on-site Weight Watchers meetings, walking clubs or low-fat and high-fibre foods in the cafeteria can also help a company’s public perception, she said. She added that for every dollar invested in weight-related programmes at the average company, there is a three-dollar return.
A study by Hewitt Associates of the 35 best companies in Canada revealed 50 per cent had one of the more popular aspects of weight-loss benefits – nutritional counselling – available to their employees.
Healthcare product manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, have estimated savings of about $9m (£5m) per year to the business, mostly from reduced medical expenses, after implementing weight-loss programmes.
Kent Coykendall, a vice-president at weight-loss provider Jenny Craig, said some companies express contradictory messages. “Having an ‘all-you-can-eat’ food bar and a weight-loss meeting in the next room shows there is a fundamental disconnection,” he said.
Coykendall sees a problem in communication, and believes there is not enough talk about slimming in the workplace. “Weight is still a bit of a taboo subject. It’s not openly discussed like smoking,” he said.
US healthcare costs have been rising in the double digits and are estimated to be $7,000 (£4,000) per worker. While most Western countries are fighting obesity issues, many are not saddled with the same kind of private sector healthcare overruns.
Heinen admits that with one of the highest proportions of overweight people in the world – two-thirds of the US population – the country also seems to be at the head of the pack in dealing with the issue of weight in the workplace.
“We were the first to set the trend in getting there, and I suppose we are setting the trend in confronting it,” she said.
While there seems to be growing weight awareness among corporate America, Coykendall said he doesn’t believe employers are at the forefront of the trend.
“There is a small percentage of companies dealing with this, and it’s usually because the owner has been affected by an obesity issue,” he said.
His company has been finding it easier to partner with insurance companies, which he said are much more interested in the issue of workplace weight-loss.
“They are very, very concerned about the margins of cost, and are connecting the dots between obesity and health insurance compensation,” he said.
He added that he believes corporate America reacts far slower than the insurance and healthcare sector. There may come a time soon when insurance companies and healthcare providers begin singling out those who are more costly to companies because of their weight, in the same way that life insurance providers charge more to smokers, and motor insurance providers to those in high-risk age groups.
Corporate social responsibility is another driver, as companies grow evermore wary of the public reaction to an unhealthy workforce. A 2003 survey by the American Management Association found 71 per cent of executives believe corporations have a “responsibility to promote wellness among their employees”.
The good intention seems to be there, from both the staff and the employers. But will they have the willpower to skip the usual temptations, such as the lure of low-cost employee benefits, or that big slice of chocolate cake in the staff kitchen?
Vital statistics of the US
- $13bn – the total cost of obesity to US companies
- $7,000 – the healthcare cost per employee
- 71 per cent – the number of US executive who believe their companies have a duty to promote healthy lifestyles
- Two-thirds – the proportion of Americans who are overweight
- 40 million – the number of Americans who are obese
- 4 million – the number of Americans who are extremely obese