There aren’t many companies that couldn’t use an extra million dollars. For an employer that’s a 1,000-person company, that’s how much they could be saving by instituting a corporate wellness program for employees.

Studies show that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. A study by Duke University researchers reported that overweight employees are 13 times more likely to miss work, and that they are 50% less productive than their peers. Factor in the increased cost of health care for these employees, and the extra cost per overweight employee totals $1,500 per year. For a 1,000-person company with average obesity rates, that’s $1 million in extra expenses that could help profits instead.

This scenario sounds to me like an excellent reason for employers, and their benefit advisers that work with them, to think about instituting a corporate weight loss program. But many employers are still dragging their feet, costing their companies a lot of money and putting their own employees at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and more than 60 other illnesses.

Just like a regular exercise program, simply getting started with a corporate weight loss program is often the hardest part. But if you don’t get your employer clients to do this, they’ll fall behind wellness leaders such as Google, Salesforce.com, Zappos.com and hundreds of other national corporations that have recognized the value of weight loss programs for their employees and their bottom lines.

So like a fitness instructor at the gym, I’m going to offer you some tips for getting your employers on track:

  • Getting buy-in at the top: Nothing motivates employees more than seeing the boss lead by example. One of our corporate clients, Chemprene Inc. of Beacon, N.Y., is hoping this strategy pays off. Katie Sens, director of human resources who oversees more than 100 employees, recently told EBA’s sister site Employee Benefits News that she and her co-workers were inspired by their boss who lost 75 pounds. Sens then partnered with Retrofit. “Our boss is aboard, I’m in it, as are several other managers and their sponsors, hoping to lead by example,” she told EBN. At companies where senior leadership shows a genuine commitment to wellness, employees often follow suit. In contrast, at companies where top executives only pay lip service to it, they send mixed signals to their staff and undermine the effectiveness of their programs.
  • Understanding challenges: There are many factors that impact company-wide health patterns. Are employees mostly in front of computers all day, or do they have the opportunity to move around? Does the workforce skew younger or older? Is the company in a cold-weather climate that limits access to outdoor activities? Does the cafeteria food — yes, the company cafeteria — feature high-fat, high-carb foods like pizza and cheeseburgers instead of salads and stir-fries? Encouraging people to take walk-around breaks, installing a company gym and overhauling the cafeteria menu aren’t expensive, but they are very effective at reversing obesity.
  • Be consistent in your commitment: Just like a New Year’s resolution, employers shouldn’t be so eager to make a quick decision to change that it’s forgotten the next week. Once an employer implements a wellness initiative, they need to stay on it. Communicate about the program on a regular basis. Put up posters. Send out emails or hold conference calls for far-flung workers.
  • Use both the carrot and the stick: A lot has already been said about using financial incentives to achieve wellness goals, and for good reason — employees respond to them. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers can contribute more to some employees’ health benefits than others, and this includes making distinctions between those who achieve fitness goals and those who don’t. So that’s a powerful incentive right there. Employers can also offer cash rewards such as gift cards for those who participate and reach their targets. Whether you penalize employees or reward them, using their pocketbooks to encourage a healthier lifestyle is a win-win proposition.

Another way to make weight loss programs work is to provide real-life support. Many corporate wellness programs rely solely on software packages and apps, or simple points-based systems to track progress. That’s a tough sell, and it’s ultimately a lonely endeavor. Much of wellness revolves around weight loss, and if you’re like most people, you know how challenging it can be to lose even a few pounds. Weight management involves complex human psychology as well as conscious and consistent food choices. Quite simply, it’s hard to do alone.
Our approach combines great technology such as fitness bands and software with ongoing tele-support from coaches, psychologists and dieticians. We’ve found that when people form a relationship and make a commitment to another person, they’re much more likely to reach their wellness goals. Using this approach, the average Retrofit client has lost 9% of his or her body weight.

Corporate weight loss programs definitely work and they’ve been proven to help the bottom line. As health care costs continue to rise, and with the ACA’s employer mandate about to go into effect for certain employers, it’s high time for companies to prioritize employee wellness — for the good of both the company and it’s most important asset, its people.

Hyman is CEO at Retrofit, a weight loss program for employees and employers. Reach him at Jeff@RetrofitMe.com.

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