Can Obesity Impact Work Productivity?

Published on August 17, 2022 and last updated for accuracy on August 25, 2022
Can Obesity Impact Work Productivity

Everybody has gotten a little flabby in the stomach area. Being a little overweight has not generally been seen as something that is terribly bad for most kinds of work.  However, due to the rising prevalence of obesity across the different age groups, in adults, adolescents and children. This health risk which brings increased health care costs is becoming a worrying concern because of its consequences on the workplace and the workforce health.

Obesity is a serious threat not only to public health but also to business productivity. But what is being obese? How is it different from being overweight? Why should we care about the personal health of our co-workers and employees?

To put it most simply, being obese means having too much body fat based on the most common measure of weight status which is called the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is a simple calculation based on the ratio of someone’s height and weight. While it is not a perfect measure of health because BMI does not really take into consideration a person’s muscle mass, body type or shape, their weight distribution, or their age, it is still a good indicator as far as obesity is concerned. (1)

For adult men and women, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy. Being Overweight is defined as having a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9. If you have a BMI of more than 30, you are considered as being obese. (2)

Prevalence of Obesity

Being overweight and obesity has become a worldwide problem. Obesity rates have tripled since 1975, worldwide. As of 2016, almost 2 billing adults were overweight and about 650 million were categorized as obese. In most of the world’s population obesity kills more people than being underweight.

As of 2020, 39 million children under the age of 5 were categorized as overweight. The sad thing is that obesity, like smoking, is a preventable disease. (3)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention In the United States, obesity prevalence was 41.9% among Americans. And from 1999 to 20000000 through 2015 to March 2020, American obesity prevalence has increased from 30.5% to 41.9%, and severe obesity has nearly doubled from 4.7% to 9.2%.

This obesity epidemic’s cost is measured not only in human lives lost or deterioration of quality of life but also in dollars. In 2019, the estimated obesity related medical costs were close to a total of $173 billion. Adults with obesity had higher medical costs of $1,861 than those without. (4)

This obesity epidemic is now recognized as one of the most important national health problems in the world today. According to World Health Organization numbers, of the 2 billion overweight adults, 650 million are considered obese, which accounts for 39% of men and 40% of women. With the current trend, it is predicted that 2.7 billion adults will be overweight, with over 1 billion of obese people by 2025. (5)

Causes of Obesity

There are many causes of obesity. Generally, obesity is caused by eating too much and exercising too little. What matters in weight gain and weight loss is calories in and calories out. Meaning, that if you have more calories going in, particularly fat and sugars, and don’t burn off the energy through exercise or physical activity, that excess energy will be stored by the body as fat. If you have fewer calories taken in than calories burned then you will lose weight.

Because of the increasingly sedentary nature of many jobs, as well as our lifestyles and diet, many people now tend to eat more than what they burn off through physical activity or exercise.

It is important to understand the causes of obesity in order to work towards its prevention. If you are trying to avoid being obese, consider making some of these dietary adjustments either by minimizing or totally avoiding things that may cause Obesity.

On the other hand, if you are an employer that hopes to curb obesity and encourage the maintenance of healthy weight among your employees or co-workers, you may want to consider taking steps or implementing actions that help curb obesity by avoiding those things which cause it.

The prevention of obesity is projected to result in improved health and productivity which can help lessen an a new economic burden. This further emphasizes the need for public health prevention strategies to reduce this growing epidemic. (6)

1. A poor diet causes obesity.

Obesity is something that occurs over time. Weight gain is gradual, as opposed to sudden, and is usually the result of poor diet or unhealthy lifestyle choices. Here are some things that cause obesity.

  1. Overeating processed food or fast food. Foods that are high in fat and sugar are very calorically dense. Calorically dense foods are those that are high in calories such as fats and sugars.
  2. Eating out a lot. Restaurants and fast food places’ primary concern is to make food that tastes good, and not necessarily healthy. Some restaurants often use many butter or fats or sugar to make the food taste better than what you would make at home. Consider this when eating out, if you have gained many weight recently, ask yourself if you have been eating out or ordering more often than usual.
  3. Eating large portions. Eating more food than you actually need is an obvious cause of obesity. Sometimes, special occasions and celebrations of holidays may cause you to eat larger portions than you are accustomed to. When you order at restaurants that specialize in large portions, this abundance of food functions as an encouragement to eat more than you normally would.
  4. Drinking too many Sugary drinks. Energy drinks, flavored coffee drinks, soft drinks, and squeezed fruit juice can be rich in sugar. If you drink too many of these drinks or drink them on a daily basis, the calories can really add up.
  5. Emotional Eating also known as stress eating is any eating that you tend to do to make yourself feel better, not necessarily to satiate hunger. This is different of course from craving for certain types of food.

2. A lack of exercise or physical activity also causes obesity.

Most people have grown very accustomed to sedentary lifestyles which involve jobs where they are in front of a desk or computer for a greater part of the day. Instead of walking or cycling, people also rely more on their cars to get from place to place. At home, which many people consider a place of rest, people generally relax, watch tv, play computer games and rarely take regular exercise.

Diet is only one factor of obesity, this lack of physical activity is the other side of the coin in people’s general health and well-being. If you are already obese or are trying to lose weight, you may need to do more exercise than the 150 minutes of moderate exercise recommended by many government institutions.

3. There may be some rare genetic diseases that cause obesity.

Diseases like Prader-Willi syndrome cause obesity. While of course, certain traits inherited from our parents may predispose someone to be overweight, these predispositions do not make weight loss or the maintenance of a healthy weight impossible. In most cases, poor diet and exercise still are the main cause. (7)

Workplace Productivity and the Impact of Obesity

Workplace productivity is all about getting work done in the least amount of time without compromising the quality of work. (8)

This productivity can be impacted by absenteeism. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine states that obesity can increase health-related absenteeism by 3 days per week.

Clearly, if a worker is absent, they are not able to do the work.  Presenteeism is also a problem, presenteeism is not as obvious as absenteeism. It refers to the lost productivity that occurs when employees are in the workplace but because of an illness, injury, or other condition, they are not able to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make errors on the job. (9)

Absenteeism and presenteeism affect work productivity in similar ways where the work is not being done or is not being efficiently done, which amounts to losses to the company.

J Occup Environ Med says that annual productivity losses may range from $271 to more than $500 per employee.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism are two ways which are affected by obesity or by the health of the employee, sickness can not only cause absenteeism but even those who choose to stay present have diminished productivity due to their reduced or sub-optimal condition. Researchers have studied this loss and productivity and found that obesity is associated with large employer costs both from direct health care and insurance claims and indirect costs from lost productivity owing to workdays lost due to absenteeism and disability. Furthermore, the same research showed that morbidly obese employees cost more than twice the amount in terms of covered medical, sick leave, disability, and workers’ compensation combined. (10)

A study conducted to learn more about obesity and its association with sick leaves and their prolonged duration found that in addition to obesity, smoking and insufficient fruit and vegetable consumption were factors in the degree of productivity loss at work.  More than 10% of sick leave and the higher levels of productivity loss at work may be attributed to lifestyle behaviors and obesity. (11)

In certain jobs which required physical labor, studies have shown that there were more injuries such as sprains and strains, injuries to the lower limbs and torso, or injuries due to falls in Obese workers who also experienced 40–49% higher risks for occupational injury. (12)

A study that sought to quantify the health care costs and the workplace absence consequences to payers and employers, reports that employees who have had a cardiovascular disease like heart attack or other types of acute coronary syndrome which is related to obesity are a major source of direct and indirect health costs. The study results confirmed that high direct costs of medical care for workers are $40,000 higher on average than for other workers. The indirect yearly obesity attributable costs were estimated to be $1,000 higher than other workers mainly attributed to costs of short-term disability and absence from work. (13)

Research done in Singapore found that the annual medical spending attributable presenteeism of obese employees was around 73.1 billion. (14) Obese workers take more sick days, have longer sick leaves, and incur greater productivity losses than non-obese workers. The higher the obesity classification, the greater costs associated with direct and indirect costs. (15)

In the UK research at King’s College in London revealed that obese employees take at least four more sick days per year than their normal-weight counterparts. This number doubles for those who are considered morbidly obese. (16)

Obesity does not have an even impact across different fields of work, whether white collar or blue collar, across occupations; multivariable analyses found significant differences in work productivity impairment and indirect costs between normal weight and any obesity class. (17) Absenteeism and presenteeism contribute to high indirect costs. (18)

As Millennials enter the workforce, the growing prevalence of obesity among their generation is predicted to negatively impact their productivity and resulting economic prosperity. Given that most of one’s adult life is spent on the job, employers have a unique opportunity to contribute to the solution by creating an environmental culture of health. (19)

Obesity crisis definitely has both health and economic costs.

What Organizational Interventions Can be Done?

The impact of obesity on productivity cannot be ignored as it can have some significant financial repercussions, not to mention its impact on the organization

So what can organizations do to curb or intervene with this obesity epidemic which is affecting productivity? To do this, we have to go back to the causes of obesity. Companies can help encourage their employees to maintain a healthy weight or to keep away from obesity first by helping educate their employees, some people make poor dietary decisions just out of lack of information. For one, companies can incorporate nutrition/healthy eating and physical activity into worksite wellness and health promotion programs

Companies can also offer health screenings, which includes BMI and risk factor assessments to help employees be more aware of their current state of fitness and health so that they will be well-informed and can make better decisions.

Organizations can also offer incentives to promote healthy behaviors, such as participation in physical activity. Types of incentives include different incentives that can be offered such as prizes, vacations, employee recognition, or better medical health coverage.

They can also encourage healthier choices and decisions by making it easier to make those choices. Healthier food in the cafeteria, listing the nutrition facts of cafeteria food, reducing the amount of junk food in office vending machines, hosting healthy company potlucks, and generally making it easier for employees to eat and choose healthy options will help.

Companies can also incentivize the pursuit of weight loss or maintenance of a healthy weight by providing actual incentives. The financial repercussions of an obese workforce have already been established, so actually financially incentivizing employees to be healthy and not obese is not a loss but a net gain in productivity.

Organizations can also offer weight management programs. Some companies even offer “The Biggest Loser” type competitions to encourage a weight loss competition and incentivize the person who gains the most amount of weight.

In Japan, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare have a different approach to fining companies who do not meet certain weight standards among their employees. They introduced the ‘Metabo Law’ which requires men and women between the ages of 40 and 74 to have their waist circumference measured annually. Companies’ health insurers are required to provide weight loss classes to employees that have become overweight or met certain other criteria. (20)

They can also have their own exercise club or gymnasium on the worksite or partner up with local gyms to offer either free or discounted rates for gym or health club benefits. This may have some costs but in the long run, the indirect and direct costs of absenteeism and presenteeism among obese are still costly to the company’s bottom line.

While personal health is ultimately a personal and individual concern, we cannot simply avoid or ignore the impact of an unhealthy and obese workforce. Both the individual and the organization have an opportunity to address the Obesity problem before it becomes worse.


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