Pressure mounts on overweight Americans

Jan 08 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

They've been accused of taking more time off, crippling the healthcare system and are being less likely to land their dream job. Now they are being told they work too slowly. Perhaps overweight Americans could be forgiven for feeling under siege.

Obese Americans are less productive than their thinner colleagues, academics have controversially claimed, adding to what is a growing weight of evidence that those who eat too much or don't take enough exercise are rapidly becoming the pariahs of the modern workplace.

A study of 341 manufacturing workers by academics from the University of Cincinnati has suggested this lower productivity means seriously obese workers can cost companies as much an extra $500 each

The research has been published in the respected medical publication The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

It argued that those workers with moderate to extreme obesity had the greatest health-related limitations at work.

Specifically such workers often needed more time to complete tasks than their less overweight colleagues, leading to a rise in "presenteeism", where they were at work but performing at less than full capacity.

They were also less able to carry out physical tasks around the workplace.

"These limitations were significantly greater than in the overweight or mildly obese groups," the research argued.

The latest study adds fuel to an increasingly acrimonious debate within American workplaces about the burden of growing levels of obesity, its impact on corporate life, individuals and the wider economy, and the perceived discrimination many overweight Americans now feel.

A study by Duke University in April last year, for instance, concluded that obese Americans were more likely to get injured at work or take time off and were twice as likely to cost their organisations in injury claims than their thinner colleagues.

Last February, too, research by PricewaterhouseCoopers' Health Research Institute and the World Economic Forum argued that chronic diseases, many of which were related to obesity and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, were a growing and costly threat to companies and their workers.

Exactly a year ago, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the trend towards paying fatter workers lower salaries was, if anything, getting worse.

The shortfall in wages for obese workers had more than tripled over the nine years from 1998 a 2005, from $1 (52p) an hour to $3.40 (£1.75).

In the latest Cincinnati study most of the workers were either overweight or obese, with nearly a quarter classified as mildly obese (or with a body mass index of 30 to 34.9) and 13 per cent rated moderate to extreme (with BMI of 35 or higher).

Another four out of 10 were classified as overweight but not obese (or with a BMI of 25 to 29.9).

The amount of productivity lost to health-related reasons was 4.2 per cent for workers with moderate to severe obesity, some 1.8 per cent higher than for all other employees, the researchers found.

Based on an average hourly wage of $21, the annual cost of presenteeism for moderately to extremely obese workers was nearly $1,800, or $500 higher than for other workers.

Employees with moderate to extreme obesity also had increased health-related absenteeism, compared with other workers, the research found.

Obesity had a "threshold effect" on presenteeism, with moderately/extremely obese workers being significantly less productive than other workers, it argued.

Limitations in performing job tasks and completing work in the expected time could be related to difficulty moving because of increased body size or weight, or because of an increased rate of pain problems related to other maladies, such as arthritis, the research suggested.

Workplace programmes targeting obesity, especially among the most obese workers, could help to reduce costs from lost productivity, argued research leader Dr Donna M Gates.

"The study's results support other research that has indicated that a weight loss of 10 per cent can yield substantial health and economic benefits," she said.

"Even modest weight loss could result in hundreds of dollars of improved productivity costs per worker each year," she added.