Promoting Healthy Weight: With Obesity on the Rise, EAPs Can Take Advantage of Their Assessment, Referral, and Case Management Skills to Help Employers Keep Healthcare Costs under Control and Encourage Employees to Maintain Healthy Lifestyles

Article excerpt

This is the first of two articles on promoting healthy lifestyles in the workplace. A follow-up article will describe an actual program and theoretical model devoted to promoting health), weight among workers.

Just as they reduced employers' costs associated with alcohol in the workplace, employee assistance programs have a clear opportunity to assist organizations in addressing obesity. While the ever-broadening focus of EA services has been criticized as one factor in the apparent decrease in EAPs' effectiveness in identifying alcohol problems among workers, it is incumbent upon employee assistance professionals to recognize the many challenges and issues tiering employers and their workforces and offer comprehensive and effective programs without compromising the integrity of what has made EAPs successful and valuable.

Obesity is one such challenge, and it is fast becoming a national epidemic. Nearly 65 percent of the U.S. adult population, or two out of three adults, is overweight or obese. (1) Obesity leads to at least 300,000 deaths annually (2) and places individuals at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, musculoskeletal conditions, stroke, some cancers, and depression. The effects of obesity and being overweight affect healthcare expenditures and productivity more than smoking and alcohol use. (3)

Overweight and obese employees can have a dramatic impact on a work organization's bottom line. The total cost of obesity to U.S. companies is estimated at $13 billion per year. (4) Obesity is associated with 30 million lost workdays, 239 million restricted activity days, 90 million bed days, and 63 million physician visits annually. (5)

The human and financial toll of obesity on workplaces is the basis on which EAPs should position themselves to address this issue. The EA field's focus on prevention, education, and referral to appropriate resources offers natural synergies to meet employers' need to minimize risks associated with obesity.

UNDERSTANDING OBESITY

To effectively address the health and business impacts of overweight and obese workers, it is important to understand what these conditions are as well as their causes and their physical, psychological, and social consequences.

Someone who is overweight has an excessive amount of body weight compared to set standards; someone who is obese has excessive amounts of body fat. Thirty-one percent of those who are overweight are obese. Both conditions occur when an individual consumes more calories than s/he burns. While some medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, depression, and certain neurological problems, can interfere with the body's ability to maintain a healthy weight, (6) the causes of the imbalance between calories consumed and calories burned may include genetic, environmental, and/or psychological factors.

Genetics and family learning. Studies have revealed a genetic predisposition to obesity that is unrelated to lifestyle. Family norms also have a significant impact on learned eating behavior--parents who model poor eating habits and inactivity teach their children the same behavior. Family rules such as requiring that every item on a plate be eaten encourage overeating, particularly with portion sizes in America growing wildly out of proportion to individual nutritional needs.

Lifestyle factors. Lifestyle factors, including how much an individual eats and how much physical activity s/he performs, affect weight and health. Americans tend to eat high-fat, high-calorie meals and generally do not get enough physical activity. (7) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40 percent of U.S. adults do not engage in leisure-time physical activity and only 14 percent meet the standard of brisk walking for 30 minutes per day, five times per week. (8)

Stress. High-fat foods and diets high in non-complex carbohydrates inhibit the release of stress-fighting hormones. …