Three Missing Links for Employers and Obesity

In a thoughtful analysis, the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) has identified three missing links for employers and obesity. There can be no doubt, obesity has captured and will likely hold the attention of employers. The costs have mounted to a point that prudent businesses can’t ignore them.

Employee health leadership from major employers in the northeastern U.S. readily identified some the well-accepted elements for a successful weight management initiative. They include top leadership support, participation incentives, good branding and marketing, ROI data, and success measures for health outcomes and engagement.

But in the estimation of the NEBGH, three links for employers and obesity are missing:

  1. Tailoring. One size does not fit all. Generic programs will not be successful, particularly for people severely affected by obesity.
  2. Employee Involvement. Trust and engagement are essential. Programs that dictate employees should simply line up to be weighed or pay a penalty have gone down in flames at CVS, Penn State, and other organizations. A successful program will involve people who are most affected by obesity, not just people whose issues are modest. Such engagement will require attention to issues of weight bias and respect for people of all sizes.
  3. Scalability. Large employers need programs that can be scaled across multiple worksites and be relevant to diverse employee populations.

Each of these links — directly or indirectly — speaks to the need to offer employees access to tools that will meet their needs. Employers are mostly offering tools suited to people only minimally affected by excess weight. These eat-less-move-more programs are great for them, but the group with the greatest need and impact from obesity are those more seriously affected, who need more intensive interventions, tailored to their needs.

Jeremy Nobel, Executive Director of the NEGBH Solutions Center, commented on possibilities for change:

Official recognition of obesity as a disease by the American Medical Association could increase physician engagement in identifying overweight and obese individuals for intervention, as well as help reduce the stigma and pave the way for increased participation in employer-sponsored efforts.

We hope he’s right. Research presented at Obesity Week 2013 found that most (59%) of employers who are setting weight-related health goals are excluding intensive evidence-based interventions for obesity from their health plans.

Most often, an employee with obesity who needs a dietitian, fitness training, obesity drugs, a medical obesity specialist, or surgical treatment must pay hefty sums of money out of pocket to address their condition.

No wonder the progress has been slow.

Click here to read more from Insurance Business America, here to read the NEBGH report, and here to read the research presented at Obesity Week 2013.

Washington Mills Employees #3-393 and #2243, photographs © Michael Rose / flickr

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