Addressing Obesity in the Workplace
Addressing Obesity in the Workplace
By Kelly Sutton, MBA, CCWS
Employers have tried many strategies (with varying degrees of success) to help control health care costs and improve the health of their employees. This includes trying to manage health by addressing employees’ key lifestyle risks that negatively impact health, including the growing obesity epidemic.
Reducing obesity should be a priority for employers seeking to lower the incidence and severity of chronic illnesses and the demand for health care services. Aurora Health Care serves as an important role model and is actively engaged in many health promotions and wellness initiatives to help trim the obesity epidemic in its own employee population.
Some of Aurora’s programs and services require a financial investment — others are cost-free. Aurora’s recent success in reducing employee obesity demonstrates that making small incremental changes can encourage employees to make healthful choices and improve overall health. Over the past four years, employees at Aurora have lost 52 tons of excess weight. Also, there has been a 5.5% reduction in the percentage of obese employees (BMI ≥ 30) from 2013 to 2016.
Environmental support for healthy choices
Aurora hospital cafeterias have totally eliminated fried foods while offering an increasing number of healthy options, including organic choices and gluten-free alternatives. Beverage selections in Aurora cafeterias are now color-coded (red = high sugar; yellow = less sugar; green = sugar-free). Every day one tasty “500-calorie or less” healthy-meal option is attractively displayed and promoted in its hospital cafeterias.
By offering more healthful choices, reasonable portions and nutrient-rich foods, employers can nudge their employees into making healthy choices at workplace cafeterias and onsite vending machines.
Changing the workplace food culture, over time
Employers have considerable control over the work environment and can make small, but conscious, decisions to help change their employees’ health and behaviors over time. Some environmental changes are easier to adapt than others. For example, Aurora continues to work on improving long-standing practices such as having higher-fat, higher-sugar food options (examples: cake, donuts, pizza, etc.) at meetings and at employee celebrations. This continues to be a work in progress.
Building more physical activity into the workday
Increasing daily activity is key to managing weight. Aurora’s larger clinics and hospitals offer maps showing walking routes inside and outside the building. Caregivers (employees) are encouraged to take a walk during their lunch break or before or after their shift. Promoting physical activity during the workday (walking or taking the stairs instead of the elevator) is a cost-free option that any employer can support.
Keeping employees (spouses, too!) active and healthy
Aurora partners with more than 200 health clubs in Wisconsin and Illinois to encourage employees to be physically active on a regular basis. Employees can earn $15 for every month they complete 10 health club visits.
In addition to helping employees maintain a healthful lifestyle, certain Aurora programs involve spouses, too. Each year all caregivers and their spouses covered under the Aurora medical plan can attend a height/weight screening to be eligible for a Healthy Weight wellness credit of approximately $350 per year.
As a health care leader, Aurora Health Care began collaborating about seven years ago with an organization called Health Management Resources (HMR) to help its own employees and patients lose weight, maintain their weight loss and improve their health through a safe, supervised program. Employees are reimbursed 50% of the costs upon verified completion of the program.
Aurora also encourages weight loss through well-known programs such as Weight Watchers®, with onsite meetings held at several hospitals and throughout the community. Caregivers are reimbursed 25% of Weight Watchers® program fees. Through Aurora’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Integrative Medicine departments, employees and spouses can receive free lifestyle and healthy weight coaching.
Direct and indirect costs of obesity
Most employers understand that the rising costs of medical care due of obesity are reflected in increased claims related to diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, depression, back and knee problems, heart problems and other conditions exacerbated by excessive weight. There are also indirect costs, such as increased workers’ compensation claims, diminished work performance and an increasing number of employees with total or partial disability.
As a health care leader and a large-scale employer of 33,000 employees, Aurora has the visibility to serve as a role model and be a champion for change. Aurora remains committed to modeling best practices that encourage all of its employees to make healthy lifestyle choices, especially those employees struggling with obesity who are seeking to lose excess weight.
Any employer, regardless of size or type, can help stem the tide of obesity by demonstrating a commitment to helping their employees stay healthy and by creating a health-promoting work environment.
Kelly Sutton, MBA, CCWS, is Aurora’s Wellness Program Manager. For more information, please visit AuroraEmployerSolutions.org