The increasing girth of the average American is becoming a pretty weighty issue, and employers tired of having paint scraped off door frames are beginning to take notice. Some are beginning to turn away from incentive based health programs to efforts that actually punish employees or restrict benefits for those who do not participate. Excessive weight in America, it turns out, is a really big fat problem.

7 in 10 Americans are now overweight, with more than one third classified as obese. It is a surprising and disturbing statistic. I'll tell you, I almost dropped my Tootsie Roll when I read it.

For a number of years many employers have been offering wellness programs in the hope that the tubbo's on their payroll (statistically most of us, including yours truly) would participate and develop a healthier and less expensive (or expansive?) lifestyle. Alas, it was not to be. I maintain they would have had better success if they had offered ice cream and pizza to encourage people to get with the program, but what do I know? It just seems that dropping pounds and getting healthy is too hard to be attempted just because it is good for us.

No, we need to be beaten with a stick to get the point across.

Hence employers are beginning to drop the carrot, and are now looking at better ways to get our attention on the matter. Construction materials supplier Lafarge U.S. offers a voluntary health screening and coaching program that does offer incentive rewards to those employees who participate. However, it has also started limiting the health benefits of those who do not. Those employees who “had at least three risk factors and didn’t partake in coaching could not sign up for the company’s gold-level insurance plan, which has no deductible and lower out-of-pocket costs. Workers who didn’t get evaluated at all could only choose a bronze plan that comes with a $2,750 deductible.”

Ouch. That's a lot of Moon Pies.

More is being learned about the cost of poor health and absenteeism in the workplace, and an overweight, sedentary lifestyle is emerging as one of the leading factors in that expense. This is of course also a concern in the workers' compensation world, as co-morbidities such as diabetes and other weight related issues greatly affect both cost and outcome for the industry.  

So, are company's efforts having an impact? According to a Rand study the answer is, “not yet”. Rand reports just 10% of employees participated in weight management programs and 21% in fitness programs. Only 2% of employers reported actual savings estimates. But this entire methodology is still in its infancy, as the vast majority of wellness programs are still voluntary with no negative consequences for those who do not participate. That is, no negative consequences other than excessive weight gain, high blood pressure, sky high cholesterol and the like.

Some companies still are pushing with positive incentives to get the results that will improve both the health of their employees and their bottom line. The source article for this story indicated that airline JetBlue has an aggressive wellness program that includes one-on-one coaching, biometrics measuring and financial rewards for participation. 74% of their employees participate in the rewards program and 46% in the coaching initiative. Economically it makes sense, since the alternative is building longer runways in order to get their fat crews and ginormous customers off the ground.

Still, I suspect that we will see more “negative consequence” efforts in the future as companies continue to grapple with the economic realities of an overweight and unhealthy workforce. Ironically people can only be led so far while the reward is simply for their own health benefit, especially when the alternative requires true effort and commitment. Companies will ultimately have to draw a line in the sand that we cannot waddle across, developing policies that make their employees partly responsible for the financial impact their own conditions create.

The carrot may be tempting for just a statistical few, but virtually no one likes to get hit with a stick – unless of course it is made out of sausage.

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