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How to Help Employees Get Healthy
Thomas B Gilliam
Monday, November 17, 2008
Sure you’d like your employees to drop a few pounds. It’s no secret that an overweight work force is a liability, thanks to the skyrocketing health insurance costs, increased absences and lower productivity that come with excess pounds. It’s just too risky to broach such a sensitive subject with your employees . . . isn’t it?

Not if you approach the issue correctly. Not only can you cut your healthcare costs, you can also get your employees excited about getting healthy and staying that way.

A Wall Street Journal article reported that an obese employee costs General Motors about $1,500 more in health services each year compared to an employee with a healthy body weight. It also said that when you consider that about 26 percent of GM’s active workers are obese, the problem is costing the company nearly $1.4 billion more in healthcare each year.

Another article, in the Chicago Tribune, stated that big companies have seen per-worker healthcare costs increase by more than 80 percent just since 2000. When you consider the fact that over 60 percent of the work force is either overweight or obese, you have to assume that weight is a big part of the problem. There is no denying that getting your employees to slim down can result in significant savings for your company.

Perhaps not. But there’s a huge gulf between knowing employees need to lose weight and “making” them lose it. That’s why corporations hire experts to design and implement wellness programs.

Encouraging weight loss is a touchy issue. But if you pay health insurance for your employees, obesity is your business.

Wellness programs should be presented to employees as all-inclusive initiatives that don’t single out any particular person or group. Tell employees directly that it’s difficult to provide higher wages and better benefits when so much of the company’s money is going to support avoidable illnesses. If you’re implementing a company-wide weight loss initiative, you can make these points in a letter or a kick-off meeting. But don’t discount the power of personal conversations. People will respect you more if you look them in the eye and tell the truth. If you express concern for their wellbeing (rather than focusing solely on the money), they may even be touched and appreciative.

When you frame the subject correctly, your employees will see its financial, physical and emotional benefits. Suggesting that people lose weight should never have negative or sarcastic overtones. It is an opportunity to show that you care about them as people, not just employees. You’re helping them get healthy and that’s the best thing you can do for anyone.

Losing weight can be a very life-affirming experience. People become happy and gain confidence. This translates to more effective, productive employees who are likely to feel intense loyalty for helping them turn things around. So a company that empowers people to lose weight may not only see an improvement in healthcare costs, it may gain better employees. And that, in itself, is a good reason to make the commitment.

The author is a Workplace Wellness Expert

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