Addressing Obesity in the Workplace: The Role of Employers

Context: Employers have pursued many strategies over the years to control health care costs and improve care. Disappointed by efforts to manage costs through the use of insurance-related techniques (e.g., prior authorization, restricted provider networks), employers have also begun to try to manage health by addressing their employees’ key lifestyle risks. Reducing obesity (along with tobacco use and inactivity) is a priority for employers seeking to lower the incidence and severity of chronic illness and the associated demand for health services.
Methods: This article describes the employer’s perspective on the cost impact of obesity, discusses current practices in employer-sponsored wellness and weight management programs, provides examples from U.S. companies illustrating key points of employers’ leverage and opportunities, and suggests policy directions to support the expansion of employers’ initiatives, especially for smaller employers.
Findings: Researchers and policymakers often overlook the extensive efforts and considerable impact of employer-sponsored wellness and health improvement programs. Greater focus on opportunities in the workplace is merited, however, for the evidence base supporting the economic and health impacts of employer-sponsored health promotion and wellness is growing, although not as quickly as the experience base of large employers.
Conclusions: Public and private employers can serve their own economic interests by addressing obesity. Health care organizations, particularly hospitals, as well as public employers can be important role models. Policy development is needed to accelerate change, especially for smaller employers (those with fewer than 500 employees), which represent the majority of U.S. employers and are far less likely to offer health promotion programs.

Author(s): LuAnn Heinen; Helen Darling

Keywords: obesity; employer health costs; health promotion; wellness programs

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Volume 87, Issue 1 (pages 101–122)
DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00549.x
Published in 2009