More sick days, higher insurance costs are result, physiologist says



This file photo shows researcher Dr. James Levine of the renowned Mayo Clinic, whose team developed an alternative to the traditional cubicle workstations that combine a computer, desk and treadmill into one unit.

The facts about workplace obesity are tipping the scale: by 2010, 45 per cent of North America’s working individuals are expected to be obese, up from 37 per cent in 2005.

If overweight individuals are added to the mix, that’s 65 per cent of Canadian workers and 75 per cent of American workers with an unhealthy body weight.

Thomas Gilliam, an exercise physiologist, says while firms may feel their employees’ weight is a touchy subject, they shouldn’t be afraid to confront the issue. “If you’re obese, I can look at you and know it,” he says, “and [business leaders] need to deal with it because it’s such a cost item for them.”

Thomas Gilliam, author and exercise physiologist.

Those extra business costs can range from lower productivity and sick days to increased health insurance costs and even heavier-duty equipment.

Gilliam, who co-authored the book Move it. Lose it. Live Healthy: Achieve A Healthier Workplace One Employee At A Time, discovered the above workplace obesity trends in a study of 96,000 new-hire applicants in North America. By calculating the Body Mass Index (BMI) of these individuals, Gilliam noticed the pool of new-hire workers was getting heavier and heavier each year.

Automation is the most significant contributor to workplace obesity, Gilliam says. With more and more corporations using computers, physical activity has been factored out.

“Factory workers who once had physically demanding jobs now sit and monitor consoles that do the job for them,” he says.

In his studies, Gilliam came across companies that had to purchase reinforced, heavy-duty chairs to support their staff, as well as ladders and safety harnesses with increased weight limits.

But reinforced equipment isn’t the only cost to corporations. Since obesity can be linked to a variety of health problems, firms can suffer from lower productivity due to workers taking more sick days. Gilliam says this also results in higher medical bills, and thus higher insurance costs for the employer.

In his book, he offers a number of solutions to curb obesity in the workplace, which he believes should be mandatory for all workers. Replacing caffeinated drinks with water and walking during breaks are minimal changes that will have lasting effects, he explains.

“Downtown Toronto has the advantage of office towers that are all connected by tunnels,” he notes. “No matter what the weather, Torontonians can be walking indoors yearround.”

Offering monetary incentives for weight loss is a definite way to gain an employee’s healthy commitment. Gilliam suggests offering fitness memberships followed by an extra $1,000 to those who achieve healthy blood pressure, sugar levels, and a BMI of less than 30 by the end of the year.

For more information on workplace obesity, including an obesity cost calculator, visit

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