Are you overweight or obese? How about the person sitting next to you? What about the other side? Chances are your answer to two out of three of these questions is “yes.” The reason is, two out of three (67%) Americans are overweight or obese. I don’t know how that makes you feel but it makes me disappointed for two reasons. 1.) I am a 35 year veteran of health promotion; some days stats like this make me feel like the cancer researcher who studied the disease for 35 years and retired never finding a cure. 2.) It’s something within people’s control, yet, we’ve failed to motivate individuals to control it. To me that’s a sad commentary on America, a country that made itself great by our work ethic, motivation, and fortitude.
Add obesity to chronic illness (many of the same behaviors that cause obesity also cause chronic illness) and things get worse for corporate America. 86% of America’s full-time workforce is overweight or has a chronic health condition. This causes an estimated 450 million lost work days each year resulting in a cost of more than $153 billion annually in lost productivity, according to findings released yesterday and included in EBN . To contrast, this is four times higher than our friends across the pond in the UK. If you include part time workers and other measures of presenteeism, the picture gets much worse. "Other research that has examined a broader array of factors using a somewhat different list of chronic conditions places the economic effect of lost productivity at $1.1 trillion per year," the study said.
It’s interesting to look at the evolution of knowledge over the years: In graduate school I was taught that weight was all about metabolism; balance the calories taken in with the calories burned and the problem of maintaining a healthy weight is solved. Later I learned it wasn’t that easy. Things like stress cause hormonal changes that influence our propensity to gain weight. OK, that made sense. However, recent findings from the Well-Being Index and Well-Being Assessment are a little more intriguing. We can show that the financial resources a person has available or the amount of recognition you get at work have as high a correlation to Body Mass Index, as does your eating and physical activity behaviors. So, perhaps a bad boss can make you fat, even if indirectly.
While we don’t yet understand exactly how this works, it it seems to go something like this. People who have emotional or social burdens, such as a frustrating work environment, lack of time to spend with their friends, care-giving responsibilities for a close relative, financial problems, or marital strife simply have less time, energy, interest, and propensity to follow the behaviors that result in a healthy weight. So, a less than supportive boss may not make you fat directly, but it is a factor in an employee’s ability, or lack of ability, to take good care of him or herself. So, an organization with a lot of bad bosses can experience significant negative impact from having an overweight or obese population that manifests itself in poor physical health, as well as the poor business performance of the organization.
We have implemented a number of strategies with our own people that appear to be producing results. Things like providing our colleagues the option of walking workstations, and having healthy food options in our cafe (and no fryers). We have workout Wednesdays where people can dress for fitness all day, and attend one of our many fitness classes at work. While some of these ideas may not be practical in your company, many things are. Humans make thousands of mini-decisions all day and helping people be mindful of how to make the healthy choice the easy choice can pay big dividends. For instance, if you can help your people be mindful of making the high calorie burn choice their action of choice, sustainable weight loss can be achieved. Using the stairs rather than the elevators and escalators 10 times a day burns 60 more calories. 60 more calories burned for every workday, minus vacation time, results in about 5 pounds of weight loss per year. To make it even easier for people, dress up the stairwells. Hang paintings, play music, and paint the walls bright colors – use your creativity.
Obesity is a huge issue in the US and I don’t want to trivialize what it takes to improve it. However, it isn’t rocket science either. Do you have a creative idea? If so, share it with us.