Workplace programs are an effective and worthwhile way for employers to help improve the health of their employees and reduce medical costs, scientists said Tuesday at Experimental Biology 2012 in San Diego at a session organized by the American Society for Nutrition.
The medical expenses for employees who are obese are estimated at about 42 percent higher than for those with a healthy weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet for the approximately 60 percent of Americans who are employed, it may be the workplace itself that is at the root of weight gain in the first place.
Shirley Beresford, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology of University of Washington, expressed optimism that workplace obesity programs could help reduce obesity based on a history of research. She explained that programs offered a way for employers to partner in intervention; however, she noted that the enthusiasm of employees for behavioral change may fall short.
The trouble with the workplace of Americans is that too often the mix of job insecurity, stress, sedentary behavior, and social eating present an "obesogenic environment," said Sai Krupa Das, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University.
Preliminary findings of the Tufts Healthy Weight Study offered a more promising picture for workplace intervention, Das said. The study resulted in substantial weight loss at six months that was sustained for at least a year.
Among the reasons why the intervention worked, Das said, are multiple components: encouraging physical activity combined with diet instead of either alone, behavioral counseling versus educational approaches, a high intensity versus a moderate intensity support group, and a structured maintenance protocol versus an unstructured self-directed program.
"These promising practices provide a broad framework for going forward," Das said. "We had a very robust intervention."
A workplace intervention program is likely to be cost effective for companies, according to economist Chad Meyerhoefer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Lehigh University. In his presentation on cost-benefit projections for healthcare savings for employers, he gave the estimate that for every 5 pounds of weight loss the savings could range from $30 to $80 per person annually.
William Dietz, Ph.D., director of the division of nutrition, physical, and obesity at the CDC, discussed a toolkit named LEAN Works! that was developed to promote worksite interventions. To set the example "at home," Dietz said, The toolkit was adopted on CDC campus.
"We focused on changes on the environment," he said. For example, the campus featured music in stairwells to encourage their use, conducted a walkability audit, redesigned the campus to be more walkable, and installed lactation rooms. In addition, the CDC introduced fruit-and-vegetable vendors on campus so that employees could buy fresh produce once a week, made campuses smoke-free, and installed "lifestyle centers" (gyms).