Weight in the Workplace

Loss in on-the-job productivity is most significant cost of obesity

Rising obesity rates have precipitated a public-health crisis in recent years, and many researchers have studied how much the epidemic costs workers and businesses. For the most part, the researchers have looked at the extent to which health conditions caused or worsened by obesity have hurt employers, either by increases in medical expenditures or in time absent from work.

But a new study led by Eric Finkelstein, deputy director for health services and systems research at Duke-National University of Singapore, found that lost productivity on the job caused by health problems associated with obesity is a more significant cost than increased medical spending and days missed combined.

Lost productivity during the workday was measured and quantified based on an earlier study by another research team that examined a number of criteria. Researchers looked at how much time it took all employees to start working after arriving at the workplace; how often the employees lost their concentration or repeated a job; and whether they worked more slowly than usual, felt fatigued, or did nothing at all.

Among employees who were obese, Finkelstein found that lost productivity due to health problems during the workday accounted for as much as 56 percent of the total cost of obesity for women and 68 percent for men. With a burgeoning obese population in the U.S., the study has important implications for employers, as they may face increasing costs to insure fulltime workers.

Finkelstein recommends that employers encourage a culture of wellness and provide economic and other incentives to employees who show clear signs of improving their health by losing weight, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising.

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