How can employers help obese workers?

Expert weighs in on weight-loss drugs and best practices for companies

How can employers help obese workers?

Having workers who are obese can be a huge challenge for employers.

In Canada, almost two in three adults are overweight or living with obesity, with even higher rates in marginalized and equity-seeking populations, according to the federal government.

Other than just being overweight, it’s highly likely that these workers are also suffering from other comorbidities, said Seth Friedman, pharmacy and health plans practice leader, Gallagher, in talking with HRD Canada.

“Most of the folks that are obese, they're probably dealing with type 2 diabetes, they're likely dealing with cardiovascular issues, they could be dealing with pulmonary issues.”

People with obesity are also at higher risk of developing more severe disease and complications from COVID-19, according to the World Obesity Federation.

“Obesity has an impact on people's ability to show up for work on a daily basis, be able to work effectively,” said Friedman. 

It can also be costly to employers. In the US, costs associated with absenteeism, short and long-term disability and worker’s compensation were $891, $623, $41 and $112 higher per year, respectively, for people with obesity compared to those with normal weight, according to a study funded by Eli Lilly and Company. The study was presented at ENDO 2023, the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting.

Living with obesity can have a detrimental impact on personal mental wellbeing, according to a previous report.

Pros and cons of weight-loss drugs

Should employers offer weight-loss drugs as a benefit to address these challenges? 

“Employers, for the most part, are taking a very hard look at changing their policies in terms of coverage of weight loss. Now, a lot of the deep dive that is being done on this is specifically focused on the costs of these medications,” said Friedman.

“And because of the expense that's associated with them, if an employer goes down the road and says, ‘Okay, you know what, we're going to cover weight loss, that's going to be our position going forward’, what else do they need to then put in place to determine whether or not somebody is really being effective from that perspective?” 

However, one of the big concerns with the weight loss medications that are out there today is that once people go off them, they have a tendency to gain the weight right back, “and, quite frankly, gain it back even faster,” he said.

If the goal is for employees to lose weight, would surgery be a better option?

“They are not always very effective either, in the sense that if you get a gastric bypass type surgery, there is a good chance that ultimately you will also gain back the weight. You also have the side effects that can go along with those surgeries,” said Friedman.

Making lifestyle changes to combat obesity

Whether employers choose to offer weight-loss medication to workers, there is still the question of what other lifestyle changes the employer is looking to put in place to ensure that workers stay fit and healthy, said Friedman.

“The goal isn't necessarily to be on these medications for the rest of your life, but to help you ultimately get that catalyst to lose that 10% to 12% of your body mass”.

A previous report detailed why weight-loss challenges at work are a bad idea.

Employers should then find a way to ensure that workers commit to lifestyle changes so they can manage their health. These can include eating better and exercising, he said.

However, that’s a tough task, said Friedman.

“It's, it's a tough, tough, tough question and issue that employers are dealing with in terms of ‘How do I get my employees to take more accountability of their overall health?’” he said.

“We've tried this carrot approach; we've tried the stick approach. Some approaches are more effective than others, but there hasn't been anything that we have seen per se that really gets an engagement level of 80% of your employees that are obese engaged, let's just say. It's not there. It's more around 30%, 20% engagement in some of these programs.”