Weight and the Workplace

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that there is a definite connection between weight and work.
Weight and the Work place

Many worksite environments have become more sedentary over the years and this has an effect on weight. It is estimated that daily energy expenditure at work has decreased by more than 100 calories since 1960, and that this corresponds closely with changes in average body weight. 1 One study found that the more time employees spent at their desks, the greater their odds of being overweight. 2 The number of hours worked also doesn't help. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that men and women who worked the most overtime also boosted their odds of gaining weight. 3 Conversely, jobs that require a high level of physical activity are associated with a lower risk of obesity. 4

Burden of Excess Pounds at Work
While the worksite environment can contribute to weight gain, excess weight itself has a negative financial impact in the workplace. The medical costs for obese patients are approximately 30 percent greater than costs for normal weight individuals. 5 A large part of these costs are due to the way the excess weight worsens other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. These costs come from a variety of sources, including physician visits, prescription drugs and outpatient and inpatient hospital charges.

Excess weight also has a negative effect on productivity while on the job. Heavier workers experience more disability and have more health-related absences than thinner workers, resulting in lost income. For example, one study found that heavy workers were more than twice as likely to report high level absenteeism (more than one sick day per month) than workers at a healthy weight. 6 It's not simply about absenteeism, however. Excess weight is also linked to "presenteeism," -- that is, time spent on the job but performing at less than full capacity due to stress, injury or illness. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that two-thirds of lost productivity time among obese workers was explained by presenteeism, while the remaining one-third was from health-related absences.7 It is estimated that the total annual cost of obesity in the workplace, including health expenditures, absenteeism, and presenteeism, is $73.1 billion, with over 60% of the costs attributable to individuals with a BMI > 35. 8

Small Changes = Big Improvements
The good news is that weight loss can reduce medical costs and improve job productivity and performance. Weight losses of 5 to 10 percent of initial body weight or the prevention of weight gain can translate into substantial health and economic benefits. 9 According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) task force, worksite weight management programs that include diet, exercise, support and behavior skills are the recommended strategy to prevent or control overweight and obesity in the workplace. 10 And there is proof that these programs work. For example, implementing a worksite lifestyle-based weight-loss program has been shown to result in a reduction in risk factors for heart disease that is sustained for at least one year. The health outcomes for those with other conditions, including diabetes, can also be significantly improved using this approach. 11 Fortunately, many employers have started to provide these types of weight-loss programs in the workplace.

Bottom Line: Losing a small amount of weight will not only improve health, but will also lower medical costs and have a beneficial impact on job productivity and performance. If offered, worksite weight management programs, including those offered by Weight Watchers, are an excellent choice.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated November 12, 2012.

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1 Church TS, Thomas DM, Tudor-Locke C, et al. Trends over 5 decades in U.S. occupation-related physical activity and their associations with obesity. PLoS One. 2011;6(5):e19657. Epub 2011 May 25.

2 Mummery WK, Schofield GM, Steele R, Eakin EG, Brown WJ. Occupational sitting time and overweight and obesity in Australian workers. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Aug;29(2):91-7.

3 Lallukka T, et al. Psychosocial working conditions and weight gain among employees. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Aug;29(8):909-15.

4 Steeves JA, Bassett DR Jr, Thompson DL, Fitzhugh EC. Relationships of occupational and non-occupational physical activity to abdominal obesity. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011 Mar 22. [Epub ahead of print].

5 Withrow D, Alter DA. The economic burden of obesity worldwide: a systematic review of the direct costs of obesity. J Occup Obes Rev. 2011 Feb;12(2):131-41.

6 Tucker LA, Friedman GM. Obesity and absenteeism: an epidemiologic study of 10,825 employed adults. Am J Health Promot. 1998 Jan-Feb;12(3):202-7.

7 Ricci JA & Chee E. Lost Productive Time Associated with Excess Weight in the U.S. Workforce. J Occup Environ Med. 2005 Dec;47:1227-1234.

8 Finkelstein EA, DiBonaventura M, Burgess SM, Hale BC. Lifetime health and economic benefits of weight loss among obese persons. Am J Public Health. 1999 Oct;89(10):1536-42.

10 Katz DL, et al. Public health strategies for preventing and controlling overweight and obesity in school and worksite settings: a report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2005 Oct 7;54(RR-10):1-12.

11 Eddy DM, et al. Clinical outcomes and cost-effectiveness of strategies for managing people at high risk for diabetes. Ann Intern Med. 2005. Aug 16;143(4);251-264.

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