Obesity Comes with an Unexpected Price Tag

With about one-third of the U.S. population now officially classified as obese, the financial implications of a severely overweight nation are emerging in both obvious and subtle ways. Recent calculations peg the price tag of the obesity epidemic at $140 billion a year in extra medical costs. Companies are beginning to see that employees’ bulging waistlines are affecting their bottom line. According to a Duke University study, very obese workers file twice the worker’s comp claims as non-obese workers, while missing 13 times more days after getting sick or being injured on the job. Using the health records of 11, 728 members of its own employees, Duke found the average medical claims cost relating to work injuries per 100 workers wa $51,019 for the obese and $7,503 for the non-obese—a seven-fold difference.


The problem affected all types of jobs, but was most pronounced in positions that required the most physical exertion. One of the worst rates was for nurses. Overweight nurses were hit by obesity twice: they were overweight themselves and were lifting patients who were overweight.


A 2008 study uncovered some of the subtle impacts of the obesity epidemic. Researches examined the productivity of 341 employees at eight small manufacturing companies in Kentucky. Thirty-six percent of the employees were obese, and 42 percent overweight but not obese—meaning three out of four workers were above normal body weight. While many studies have linked obesity to absenteeism, this search probed presenteeism—when employees clock in but are not fully engaged because of personal health of life issue distractions.


Workers with moderate or severe obesity required more time to complete tasks and had difficulty with physical demands. The health-related losses in productivity averaged 4.2 percent—more than twice as much as other employees. Based on an average hourly wage of $21, presenteeism cost employers $1,800 per obese worker each year, more that three times the average employee.


While such figures are significant, a substantial cost of obesity has yet to be accounted for, stemming from stigma and discrimination related to the condition. Economists are just beginning to ponder the cost of stigmatization in terms of a hostile work environment, higher turnover, and companies missing out on the talents of people who are not hired or who are denied promotion based on their weight. The 2008 study found a “threshold effect” with obesity: extremely or moderately obese workers were significantly less productive than mildly obese workers. There is a sliver lining to this finding: researchers note that strategies to encourage a manageable amount of weight loss (10% of body weight) could have a noticeable impact on obese employees’ health and the associated costs.


Source: Joe Mullich, from The Wall Street Journal