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Workplaces watch the corporate waistline
By ANITA BRUZZESE Gannett News Service

Don't be surprised if you are not the only one watching your waist as you add a few pounds over the upcoming holiday season.

Employers are beginning to take a very serious look at how overweight employees add to the skyrocketing costs of health care -- especially because chronic diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes have been linked to obesity.

Because more than half the adult population in this country is considered to be overweight or obese and health care costs continue to rise annually at a rate nearly three times the rate of inflation, you can bet employers are concerned about employees' weight.

Still, don't expect your manager to whip out a tape measure in the next meeting and ask that all workers have their tummies measured before adjourning. But do expect a bigger push to promote healthier lifestyles through exercise and diet, says Susan Meisinger, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in Alexandria, Va.

"We are seeing a greater focus on health care design that includes plans offering Weight Watchers and gym reimbursements," she says. "The evidence about how weight impacts health and health care costs is becoming very profound."

That means companies that once trimmed programs offering gym memberships as a way to cut costs overall might have found the action a bit hasty. In fact, SHRM reports that while nearly all benefits in 2003 were cut or reduced to some degree, there were increases in the percentage of companies offering benefits or programs for weight loss.

"I think the needle is definitely moving back the other way," Meisinger says. "The awareness of the issue of obesity is different than it was five years ago. There is new knowledge about weight and how it affects a person's health."

At the same time, employers know they must not only educate employees to impact individual costs, but also to keep a lid on dependent costs. Specifically, as the number of overweight children in this country rises, so do health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

"I do think that the reports about kids and obesity has got a lot more people thinking about themselves and how they live," she says. "I think that has helped to get a lot of people's attention as never before."

Meisinger says that based on surveys of the SHRM membership this year, it is clear employers will be looking for ways to offer healthy alternatives and constantly reinforce healthy behavior.

Consider these changes in company behavior that SHRM says backs that up:

  • Weight-loss programs are offered by 26 percent of organizations, up from 18 percent just five years ago.

  • Smoking-cessation programs are offered by 33 percent, up from 28 percent five years ago.

  • Wellness and fitness programs are offered by 56 percent, an increase of 51 percent from five years ago.

  • Some 30 percent offer fitness memberships subsidies to employees, up from 25 percent five years ago.

So, now that it's clear employers are taking a serious look at healthier lifestyles for workers, don't be surprised if the holiday parties this year are stocked with fruit and veggies -- followed by a brisk walk.

Anita Bruzzese is author of “Take This Job and Thrive,” (Impact Publications). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, Va., 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.