More than one-third of adult Americans (35.7 percent) are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — but do problems with obesity cause issues in the workplace? Yes they do. Weight-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of medical spending — everything from heart disease treatments to diabetes medications — meaning that each overweight employee can cost you almost $17,000 every year in extra absences, healthcare expenses, and presenteeism (showing up too tired or ill to work effectively). Obesity prevention has become a major component of employee wellness programs as well, as employers try to minimize these costs.
Obesity has increased dramatically among Baby Boomers — the core employee group in many workplaces across America. By some estimates, almost 40 percent of Boomers are obese. With such a prevalence of obesity, it’s of little surprise that problems with obesity in the workplace are on the rise. In a BLR webinar titled "Accommodating Obesity as a Protected Disability: How to Avoid Weight Discrimination Claims," Kristine E. Kwong outlined some of the various ways that problems with obesity can affect the workplace.
Problems with Obesity: Workplace Impact
Obesity is a health concern in and out of the workplace. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer—some of the leading causes of death, according to the CDC. Excess weight also contributes to a number of other debilitating health conditions, among them arthritis, asthma, and depression. Overall, Kwong told us in the webinar, "obese people have 30 to 50 percent more chronic health issues than, for example, heavy smokers and drinkers."
In the workplace this translates into higher health care expenses for employers (and employees), as well as excessive lost work time due to sick days, doctor visits, and long-term absences for disease treatment.
Problems with obesity in the workplace do not end there. Obese workers also file more workers’ compensation claims, have higher costs from those claims, and lose more days of work than non-obese workers, according to a Duke University study. The results showed 5.8 workers’ compensation claims among workers with normal weight versus 11.65 claims for morbidly obese workers; claim levels were $7,503 versus $51,019 on average, and lost workday rates were 14.19 (per 100 employees) versus 183.63.
Last but certainly not least, there is also the question of discrimination. While it’s still debatable whether obesity qualifies in and of itself as a disability under the law, many obesity-related conditions (such as diabetes) may be considered disabilities protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — which means employers will have a higher burden for workplace accommodations in these situations.
Additionally, Kwong tells us, "there’s growing support for laws that prohibit weight discrimination," particularly for laws to specifically prohibit employers from refusing to hire, denying promotions, assigning lower wages, or terminating qualified obese employees based solely on their weight. A 2010 Yale University found 65 percent of men and 81 percent of women support these types of laws. The study also found that 47 percent of men and 61 percent of women support adding "body weight" as a protected category in existing civil rights laws.
Beyond the costs we just outlined, employers have other concerns over potential problems related to obesity in the workplace. They fear that obese employees may not be physically able to do the jobs for which they were hired or that obese employees may not project the type of image employers desire to portray to customers and the general public. Clearly, this topic will remain a concern in the coming years and employers need to be prepared.
For more information on the problems with obesity in the workplace and what you can do, order the webinar recording. To register for a future webinar, visit http://catalog.blr.com/audio.
Kristine E. Kwong, Esq. is a partner in the Los Angeles office of law firm Musick, Peeler & Garrett, LLP. (www.mpglaw.com) Her practice includes the drafting and updating of handbooks, policy manuals, codes of conduct, and severance packages, and she regularly produces and presents training programs for employers on current issues of employment law.