Weight-loss and the workplace have usually kept out of each other's way. All those personal issues that go along with weight - body image, judgments about food consumption, health and lifestyle choices - were always seen as none of the company's business. But that is changing fast, as Philip Fine reports.

Today a number of influential businesses and health advocates are calculating what the rising rates of obesity are costing the economy. Many of those businesses are changing benefit plans and some of their facilities in an effort to encourage employee weight loss. It's all making weight a very corporate issue.

The price of a hefty workforce is huge, according to figures gathered by the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity (ICHEO), a US group founded two years ago by 30 Fortune 500 companies, teaming up with some health providers and insurance companies. Among the group's literature is a figure from the American Journal of Health Promotion that estimates the total cost of obesity to US companies to be US$13bn per year. ICHEO says obesity-related illnesses represent 8-9% of claims costs at an average company.

Multi-pronged approach needed

"It's a crisis and an opportunity," says ICHEO director LuAnn Heinen, who told just-food.com that companies in her group have been motivated by those statistics to take some action. Often the first steps in bringing down the costs of obesity, she says, involve looking at three areas of their business: in-house cafeterias, vending machines and general food policies.

Having such things as on-site Weight Watcher meetings, walking clubs or low-fat and high-fibre foods in the cafeteria can also help a company's optics. A study of Hewitt's 35 Best Companies in Canada revealed that 50% of them had one of the more popular aspects of weight-loss benefits, nutritional counselling, available to their employees.

Xerox, regularly included in lists of best companies, has been ahead of the curve on employee issues such as adoption assistance and domestic partner benefits. It has invested in various programmes to try to keep its staff trim, including an online health assessment, health coaches, gym membership subsidies and company sports leagues. While the company talks about the health benefits of these programmes, it also acknowledges the savings rendered to both employer and employee.

Shapely bottom line

One company that was able actually to calculate the cost reductions after implementing weight-loss programmes was Johnson & Johnson. Savings at the corporation are about $9m per year, mostly from reduced medical expenses. Heinen adds that, when looking at the average company, for every one dollar invested in weight-related programmes, there is a three-dollar return.

As much as companies may be keen to save the money associated with these programmes, they seem less enthusiastic about changing office culture. With boxes of doughnuts in the staff kitchen, birthday cakes popping up almost every week or kids' fundraising chocolate bars being sold by some workers, the typical office is usually a high-calorie environment.

Heinen gives suggestions to her members on how to make some healthful choices. She offers one example: "We would encourage things like not serving food except during breakfast or lunch meetings." Kent Coykendall, a VP at weight-loss provider Jenny Craig says some companies will send contradictory messages. "Having an all-you-can-eat food bar and a weight-loss meeting in the next room shows there is a fundamental disconnect."

Challenging the taboo

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."

The whole issue of employers encouraging staff to shed some pounds and its potential cost savings seems to resonate more with Americans, right now. US healthcare costs have been rising in the double digits and are estimated to be $7,000 per employee. While most Western countries are fighting obesity issues, many are not saddled with the same type of private-sector health care overruns.

Heinen admits that with one of the highest proportions in the world of overweight people - two thirds of the US population - the country seems also to be at the head of the pack in dealing with 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."

Corporate America lagging behind insurers

While there seems to be growing weight awareness among corporate America, Jenny Craig's Coykendall says he doesn't believe employers are at the forefront of the trend. "There are a small percentage of companies out there dealing with this and it's usually because the owner has been affected by an obesity issue." He says his company has been finding it easier to partner with insurance companies, which he says 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 adds that he thinks corporate America reacts much 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 a company 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.

Desire to eat better widespread

Until that time, many companies will likely be seeing a general thirst for nutritional information. Employee assistance provider Ceridian recently conducted a survey on issues related to workplace wellness and found that when asked what they would like to do in the next year to maintain their health, the majority of respondents said they wanted to eat better. This has led Ceridian, as well as cafeteria giant Sodexho, to look at the possibility of expanding their businesses. They both told just-food.com that they are exploring contracting out nutritional counsellors.

Another survey, one carried out in 2003 by the American Management Association, found that 71% of executives say corporations have a "responsibility to promote wellness among their employees."

The good intentions seem to be there, from both employees and employers. But will both sides have the willpower to forego the usual temptations, like the lure of low-cost employee benefits or that piece of birthday cake that just got sliced in the staff kitchen?

Expert Analysis

Workplace Consumption

Snacking, drinking, "desk dining" and even supplementing late and early meals are all increasingly common workplace activities - which can also affect consumption outside of work. Workplace Consumption will help industry players understand this growing market - currently worth €140 billion - better target key consumer groups and develop value-added products.

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