Obesity in the Workforce: Liability, Disability, or Opportunity?

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Think obesity in your workforce doesn’t affect near-term costs? According to a just-released research study, it’s about more than just long term healthcare costs. But before you go throwing yet another corporate wellness initiative at your overweight employees, read on.

Obesity As A Liability

Even if employers don’t have the data, time or tools to calculate a an ROI for wellness or tally the costs of its absence, they know without a doubt that many in their workforce are obese or overweight, and they suspect that it’s costing them money right now.

And they’re right. A new research study just released found that obesity indeed affects the bottom line. According to the study, it’s associated with a higher incidence of sick days and lost productivity.

So employees should just hunker down and get healthy, right? Carrot for the good efforts, stick for the bad results? Shape up or ship out, because after all, this is costing us money?

Not so fast. A high court in the European Union just made a ruling related to obesity that may have global implications.

Obesity As A Disability

The European Court of Justice ruled that obesity, in certain circumstances, can constitute a disability and warrant the legal protections associated with disabilities. That means reasonable accommodations for special needs and circumstances, such as an inability to take those well-lit, nicely decorated healthy stairwells. It also transforms discussions and assumptions about weight and physical activity into “third rail” topics, just like race, ethnicity, gender and age.

Comments to a diabetic co-worker like “but you don’t look fat” can now get European employers and even fellow employees in hot water. Not hiring overweight people because they’re more expensive over the long haul is also out.

“But I’m not in Europe,” you say. “That doesn’t affect me.”

Maybe. But since 2008, the EEOC has consistently interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include certain types of obesity as a disability, and it doesn’t take much to see the rising tide of support for the position in the European ruling.

The Take-Aways

The productivity statistics aren’t going away, and addressing obesity in the workplace without alienating and offending the very people you’re trying to help is not going to get any easier.

Is it a disease or just the result of poor lifestyle choices? It really doesn’t matter.

Employers are increasingly compelled — by costs, social pressure and law — to find ways to help employees address a real problem without judging them.

One thing is for certain: going forward, both employers and wellness providers will need to:

  • Avoid drawing conclusions about individuals from population statistics
  • Never assume you know about state of mind or motivation based on physical characteristics
  • Avoid assuming that low participation in wellness services or incentives is due to obstinance, disinterest, or laziness
  • Never use disparaging language about an employee’s physical characteristics (it’s a bad idea in general anyway)
  • Offer wellness programs to groups, but treat employees as individuals

Short-term, expect more cost and complexity for wellness programs that target obesity-related health outcomes, much as engineering ramps, sidewalk cutouts, and extra-wide handrail-equipped stalls in restrooms did in the past.

Long-term, let’s hope that lifting the burden of judgment from the shoulders of workers helps achieve longer-lasting results.