As the nation continues to struggle with its growing rank of the uninsured, employers are beginning to understand what a vested interest they have in their employees’ health. First consider only on-the-job injuries. A recent study analyzed by the National Council on Compensation Insurers found that an obese injured person increased claims costs by 2.8 times at 12 months post injury and up to 4.5 times at three years’ post event. At five years post injury, these claims cost 5.3 times more than a similar injury for a non-obese person. One epidemiology professor, Ron Kessler, stated that research shows that obese employees are absent from work more, have a greater propensity to be injured on the job and produce less than their non-obese counterparts.
Obesity has been called “an epidemic” by the World Health Organization. Add comorbidities such as high blood pressure and diabetes, exacerbated by excess weight, and employers face significant challenges in employee attendance, escalating health costs and the loss of key personnel due to strokes, heart attacks and other health concerns that could, with proper diet and exercise, be prevented or controlled.
Clearly, employers have an interest in ensuring their employees appropriately manage their weight and their medical conditions. Yet how far can an employer go in this effort without inviting discrimination claims and lowering morale? A recent White Paper by Littler Mendelson, a national labor law firm, predicts that the future of health care costs, expected to double by 2016, will be a significant impediment to business solvency.
Many organizations have learned that wellness plans help. Although each organization will have a different breakeven, in general, companies can recoup their wellness investment if they reduce risk factors by as little as .2 percent over five years. Some experts believe a company can achieve positive results by spending as little as $100 to $250 for wellness per employee per year.
However, there are significant legal roadblocks that must be navigated to ensure your wellness efforts do not invite litigation. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (which does not cover workers’ compensation injures), the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act as well as any state laws should be evaluated prior to implementing a wellness program. A read through Litter’s White Paper can provide an overview of the problems in wellness management.
As the link between obesity and certain medical conditions and work productivity become more direct and employers more closely support weight reduction efforts, employers must dodge the appearance of harassment. This includes “rude and offensive” behavior directed at overweight people, especially if this behavior can appear to be gender biased.
Of course, building a “wellness culture” starts at the top with senior management. Small changes like offering healthy snacks and lunches in cafeterias, eliminating sodas and providing fruit and other healthier alternatives at meetings can help. If senior managers model behavior like using stairs instead of elevators and take walking breaks, employees may begin to see wellness in a new light.