“Obesity Exacts High Productivity Penalty along with Higher Medical Costs”

“Obesity-related Cancers Rising, Threatening Gains in U.S. Cancer Rates”



Since studies can now show illnesses—such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers—are directly related to excessive weight, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health created computer models projecting the personal medical and productivity costs of overweight and obese individuals.

Bruce Y. Lee, Associate Professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Executive Director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center, and his team found they could project how much individuals could save by maintaining a BMI appropriate to their physical stature.

Lee illustrated examples of costs savings: “Going from overweight to an ideal weight range could save more than $10,000 at any age from 20 to 80, peaking at age 60 ($18,604).”  Additionally, according to the study, almost half—potentially two-thirds—of the cost of obesity came from lost income.

However, the costs associated with obesity aren’t merely lost income; it’s the value of one’s life and the value of having a good life, mostly free from disease.  From 2005 to 2014, the rates of 12 obesity-related cancers rose by 7%.  Cancers not associated with overweight and obesity fell by 13% during the same period.  When they released their findings, CDC researchers stated half of the general American public is not aware of this connection.  While research has not yet borne evidence that losing weight will help individuals who already have cancer, it is clear obesity can raise an individual’s risk of cancer.  Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said, “There are many good reasons to strive for a healthy weight.  Now you can add cancer to the list.”

Some of that lost income, besides resulting from missed work due to medical issues, could be from negative perceptions of overweight and obese people in the workplace and missed opportunities for advancement.  A 2013 study from the Center for Creative leadership found that “business executives with higher body mass indexes were perceived to be less effective at both job performance and interpersonal skills.”  Approximately half of the executives studied had a BMI of 25 or above (BMI >25 is considered overweight), compared to the 70.2% of US adults who are overweight or obese (query whether this study was self-reported).  A 2009 Michigan State University study on weight bias found only 5% of male and female CEOs at top US companies were obese with BMI >30, but between 45-61% of top male CEOs are overweight, while only 5-22% of top female CEOs were overweight.  Mark Roehling, MSU Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, and his fellow researchers note their findings, “reflect a greater tolerance and possibly even a preference for a larger size among men but a smaller size among women.”

Here is the cost of obesity to employers:

Obesity costs employers time and money in productivity, health insurance premiums and claims, presenteeism and absenteeism, and morale.  It’s generally recognized as unhealthy for an individual to be obese, and it’s not healthy for an organization with obese people to ignore reality. A 2015 Duke University study found obesity-related absenteeism and presenteeism cost US employers $73 billion annually.  Additionally, normal-weight employees cost employers approximately $3,838/year in healthcare costs, overweight to morbidly obese employees cost between $4,252 and $8,067.  Each additional BMI point above normal weight costs $194-$222 per year per employee.

What can employers do to help overweight and obese employees and contain costs?  They certainly can’t fire employees or identify an employment candidate’s weight as the reason for rejection.  Employers who discriminate based on overweight and obesity may encounter lawsuits, especially since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows for severe obesity to potentially be classified as a disability.  Instead, employers should consider weight management and healthy lifestyle resources offered by their health insurance carriers and wellbeing program vendors.  Employers should also consider wellbeing education opportunities and modifying company policies to allow for a more active workday, if employees are mainly sedentary (i.e., walking meetings, onsite fitness classes).

Before employees turn to employers for wellness help, consider these findings from an October article in Obesity:

  • 65 percent of people with obesity (PwO) recognized obesity as a disease, but only 54 percent worried their weight may affect future health.
  • Only 17 percent of PwO viewed employer-sponsored wellness initiatives as helpful in supporting weight loss.
  • 18 percent of employer representatives feel responsible for contributing to weight-loss efforts.
  • Among PwO, 71 percent had discussed their weight with a healthcare provider within the last five years, 55 percent reported having been diagnosed with obesity and 24 percent had scheduled a follow-up appointment related to weight.

What can your organization do to change employee perceptions that their employer’s wellness offerings (or lack thereof) will help them?  Creating a culture of mutual support for such intensive personal change benefits employees and employers.  Obesity and overweight do not just happen overnight, and no one reverses these conditions in a few weeks or even a year.  As with any lifestyle change or physical exercise program, obtaining proper support makes change sustainable.  And employers are uniquely positioned to offer that support.


  • Daniel Allar, “Survey Exposes Perception Gaps between Patients, Providers for Managing Obesity,” Cardiovascular Business, 6 November 2017, http://www.cardiovascularbusiness.com/topics/lipid-metabolic/survey-exposes-perception-gaps-between-patients-providers-managing-obesity
  • Dan Cook, “Obesity Exacts High Productivity Penalty along with Higher Medical Costs,” BenefitsPro, 27 September 2017, http://www.benefitspro.com/2017/09/27/obesity-exacts-high-productivity-penalty-along-wit
  • Bruce Lee, “Obesity is Everyone’s Business,” Forbes, 1 September 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2015/09/01/obesity-is-everyones-business/#15d85e1b3b6f
  • Julie Steenhuysen, “Obesity-related Cancers Rising, Threatening Gains in U.S. Cancer Rates,” Reuters, 3 October 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cancer-obesity/obesity-related-cancers-rising-threatening-gains-in-u-s-cancer-rates-idUSKCN1C826R
  • Elizabeth Nolan Brown, “Study Says Making It to CEO Requires Low BMI,” Alloy, 17 January 2013, http://www.alloy.com/well-being/how-to-be-ceo/
  • Lisa Quast, “Thin is In for Executive Women: How Weight Discrimination Contributes to the Glass Ceiling,” Forbes, 6 August 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2012/08/06/thin-is-in-for-executive-women-as-weight-discrimination-contributes-to-glass-ceiling/#f49be9412c08

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