Startling Effects of Obesity at the Workplace


Obesity is common, serious, and costly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that:

  • More than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults have obesity.
  • Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. [Read guidelines]
  • The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

Non-Hispanic blacks have the highest age-adjusted rates of obesity (48.1%) followed by Hispanics (42.5%), non-Hispanic whites (34.5%), and non-Hispanic Asians (11.7%). Obesity is higher among middle age adults age 40-59 years (40.2%) and older adults age 60 and over (37.0%) than among younger adults age 20–39 (32.3%).

Obesity increases the risk of many diseases and health conditions including:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer (breast and colon)
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Osteoarthritis

According to an article in Oxford Journal’s Occupational Medicine, the recent publication of a massive global study (9.1 million participants in 199 countries and territories over 28 years) serves to reemphasize the astonishing worldwide spread of human obesity.

Overweight and obesity and their health effects are associated with substantial economic costs. In 2008, the estimated health care costs related to obesity were $147 billion.

Obesity is associated with substantially increased rates of absenteeism (i.e. more days out of work) and presenteeism (i.e. reduced productivity while at work). Obese workers take more sick days, have longer sick leaves and incur greater productivity losses than do non-obese workers. Some analyses estimate that the costs to employers of obesity-related presenteeism are greater than the direct costs of the medical care required by those workers.

Obesity also increases workers’ compensation expenses. Obese workers file more compensation claims, have more costly claims and have more lost workdays than do non-obese workers. For example, a study of compensation claims at a US university compared two worker groups, those with class III obesity (BMI ≥ 40 kg/m3) versus those with recommended body weight (BMI 18.5–24.9 kg/m3). The obese workers averaged twice as many claims [11.65 versus 5.8 per 100 full-time equivalents (FTEs)] and had roughly 10-fold increases in loss of workdays (183.63 versus 14.19 per 100 FTEs), medical claims costs ($51 091 versus $7503 per 100 FTEs) and indemnity claims ($59 178 versus $5396 per 100 FTEs).

Finally, it is necessary to determine whether current work environments actually encourage obesity. An inconsistent body of findings has raised that possibility, suggesting that overweight and obesity are related to job stress, shift work and long work hours.

The article goes on to add: “Such a possibility, especially in light of evidence that shift work is associated with increased risks of cancer, underscores the need to determine whether and how the organization and pattern of work assignments might contribute generally to adverse health and how they might be modified to enhance worker well-being.”