Obesity, absenteeism, and productivity

A tremendous amount of data has piled up over the years about the economic impact of obesity, beyond healthcare costs.  A recent Gallup study has attempted to calculate the economic burden of obesity and chronic conditions.  Their definition of chronic condition was quite broad, although generally relatable to a co-morbid condition of obesity, “Chronic health conditions in this analysis include being overweight or obese; having ever been diagnosed with a heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, asthma, or depression; and recurring physical pain in the neck or back or knee or leg in the last 12 months. Gallup calculated unhealthy days using respondents’ answers to the question, “During the past 30 days, for about how many days did poor health keep you from doing your usual activities?”

So it was broad, and it was also a random sample, and telephone response, so the opportunity for errors abound.

That being said, and even if one discounts the responses somewhat, the economic/loss of productivity of chronic conditions associated with obesity are tremendous.  If a person is overweight, they are considerably more apt to be unhealthy and both consume more healthcare resources and not be at work.

This brings up an interesting question: what is the role of the employer in obesity and employee wellness generally?  For years, there has been a small but vocal cohort of large employers investing in wellness/anti-obesity/diabetes prevention/treatment initiatives.  There is a general movement towards employee directed wellness efforts, such as higher premiums for smokers, the occasional news-story about higher premiums for obese employees, the “carrot vs. stick” efforts to incentivize employees towards weight loss, smoking cessation, gym memberships, and the like.  Nevertheless, all of these primary issues tend to remain, and broad based employer commitment to these efforts seems to wax and wane.

So what does this mean for a manufacturer?  Are the employers and employer groups leveragble? Can they do much or are they at the whims of what the insurance industry wants to offer, who is wagging the tail on this issue?


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