Workplace Wellness Programs: Waistlines Impact Your Bottom Line

Jeff Levi,  Executive Director, Trust for America’s Health

BCLC's health and wellness blog contributor Jeff Levi from the Trust for America's Health sounds off on workplace wellness programs and the impact on company’s bottom line.

For the past two decades, as the obesity epidemic has grown, so has its cost to the country and employers.  Right now, we’re spending an estimated $147 to $210 billion a year on obesity-related medical costs.

According to a new analysis by the National Heart Forum published in our latest F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future report, if the United States continue on our current track, half of Americans – 65 million more adults – could be obese by 2030, and medical costs associated with obesity could increase by an additional $48 to $66 billion a year and the loss in productivity could rise to between $390 and $580 billion annually.      

High rates of obesity-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, are among the biggest drivers of U.S. health care costs – and businesses take on a great share of the negative economic consequences of obesity.  Right now, obesity-related job absenteeism costs $4.3 billion annually and obesity is associated with lower productivity while at work, costing employers $506 per obese worker per year. In addition, obese employees have $51,091 in medical claims costs per 100 full-time employees, compared with only $7,503 in medical claims costs for healthy-weight workers.

Employers across the country have seen unsustainable skyrocketing health care costs and have begun to look for ways to curb, or even reverse, the trend. Many employers are finding that workplace and community wellness programs offer a win-win way to improve health and the bottom line. And, by making the healthy choice the easy choice, employers have increased productivity and reduced health spending.

Workplace Wellness in Practice
As part of our F as in Fat report, TFAH also examined how a number of small businesses around the country are offering workplace wellness programs, and in a report last fall, Healthier Americans for a Healthier Economy, we also featured case studies of how business executives, elected officials and public health leaders are making the connection between improving health and improving the economy. 

Studies suggest that for every dollar a company spends on wellness programs, it can save between three and six dollars in health care costs, and that employer wellness programs can cut costs related to sick leave, workers’ compensation and disability compensation by as much as 25 percent.  But, many businesses have also found the importance of providing support for their employees and their families to improve health beyond the 9-to-5 workday, such as by supporting the development of safe neighborhood parks and increasing sidewalks in communities, so people have more opportunities to be active. 

The case studies in our reports range from large corporations to small businesses. 

For instance, in Texas, where the state comptroller found obesity costs businesses in the state an extra $9.5 billion in 2009, the San Antonio-based financial services company USAA is taking efforts to help improve the health of their employees.  They have provided employees discounts for regular use of company fitness centers, walking trails on many of its campuses and affordable healthier options in their cafeterias.  Around 85 percent of their 22,000 employees participate in their wellness programs and they’ve seen results:  the company’s health care costs have increased by just 2 percent per year, a quarter of the national average, and the average employee BMI has gone down slightly two years in a row. 

And, at the 18-employee company, Creative Craftsman, a custom metal fabrication company in Evansville, Indiana, they started a wellness program to help improve the health, productivity and happiness of their employees.  They hired a local health care provider to set up and run the program that supports screenings as well as health counseling and disease management.  The owner of the company even learned he had diabetes because of their screening program.  The company, whose annual sales range between $2.5 and $3.5 million spends around $4,000 a year on its wellness program.  In 2011, they were reimbursed for half the cost of the program through a state tax credit. 

We found that a wide range of employers around the country are taking an active role in searching for ways to support the health and wellness of their employees and their families while also struggling with the high costs of benefits.  Supporting wellness programs and larger community disease prevention programs help benefit lives as well as the bottom line.