The Cost of Obesity

Report Addresses Need for Effective Obesity Programs

By: | January 27, 2014 • 4 min read
Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

Overweight employees have twice as many workers’ comp claims as other employees, says a new report. They generate an average of more than seven times the medical claims cost than normal-weight employees and take between six and nine more sick days per year.

Overweight and particularly obesity is one of the top health challenges for employers who “need help figuring out how to implement programs that work,” according to the Northeast Business Group on Health. The NEBGH’s newly released report, Weight Control and the Workplace, examines the obstacles and some successful practices for addressing overweight employees.

“Overweight employees cost employers more than $73 billion each year and put themselves at risk for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and other chronic illnesses,” said Laurel Pickering, president and CEO of NEBGH. “Employers, health plans, and health care providers need to come up with coordinated, compelling approaches that engage employees in managing their weight in order to stem skyrocketing health care costs and improve public health.”

Pickering’s comments and the release of the report follow a structured roundtable the group conducted with employers and health plans earlier this year. The 13 participating organizations discussed obesity’s impact on employee health and costs and reviewed current strategies and those being considered to identify potential opportunities and best practices.

The Problem

“The average medical claims cost per 100 employees is $51,019 for obese employees versus $7,503 for the non-obese — a staggering 7.3 differential,” the report says. “Obese men take six more sick days a year than non-obese men; obese women take 9.4 more days a year than their non-obese counterparts. The resulting obesity-related absenteeism costs employers about $6.4 billion a year.”


Presenteeism is another major cost driver among obese workers. Employees who come to work despite illness often are less productive.

“The productivity-related costs of presenteeism more than double the medical expenses for obese employees compared to non-obese employees,” the authors report. “For a company of 10,000 employees with an average annual salary of $50,000, presenteeism can cost employers between $7 million and $8 million per year.”

While employers recognize the problem of overweight/obese employees, they face challenges. The stigma associated with being overweight or obese prevents some affected employees from participating in programs that might help and also deters discussions with the employees.

Persuading employees to participate in weight control programs is another obstacle, the roundtable participants said. Employees may raise questions such as “what’s in it for me?” and “where do I sign up?” The authors suggest having dedicated staff to promote wellness initiatives.

“One of the most cost-effective ways to enhance patient engagement is having employees meet one-on-one with a benefits provider,” the report says. “In fact, 96 percent of employees who meet individually with benefits counselors say it improved their understanding of their benefits package. Lack of knowledge and information about health care resources affects participation, and this lack is significantly higher among younger workers, less educated workers and lower-paid workers.”

The American Medical Association’s recent official recognition of obesity as a disease may also help address the problem by increasing physician engagement in identifying individuals for intervention.

Possible Solutions

Employers have been trying to promote overall health care. Offering healthier food in cafeterias, on-site exercise programs, and comprehensive wellness programs are popular, but dealing with obesity and weight management has been more problematic.

“Intervention efforts have been successful by recognizing there is no single solution but that approaches can be shaped to fit each individual’s needs,” according to the report. “Employers are also beginning to embrace alternative interventions to weight control such as pharmacological therapies, bariatric surgery, and innovative technology approaches in order to engage more of their population.”

While drug therapies for weight control had previously been limited, new medications could impact employer-sponsored weight management programs. However, barriers to their access could be problematic.

11514 Feature art“The roundtable recommended a review of access considerations, including formulary coverage and pre-authorization, to better understand issues that may need to be addressed,” the report says.

The use of smartphones, tablets, and social media can also assist in weight control. Apps that provide self-monitoring tools, for example, can track a user’s meals and exercise throughout a day.

Behavioral intervention strategies are also shown to be effective in weight management efforts. The programs combine education with motivational support both online and face-to-face.

These programs typically include biometric screenings, risk assessments, educational materials, access to fitness centers, lifestyle and behavior coaching, and group fitness challenges. Also gaining in popularity among employers is competition.

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]