Are Your Employees Getting Fatter?

“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” – John F. Kennedy

MN, the CEO of my largest client, a $300 million publisher, is promoting a weight-loss program for employees. He is giving them financial and other incentives to exercise more and eat less. With good reason.

Obesity is a big problem in the U.S. Disabilities among American workers, The Wall Street Journal reports, are growing at an accelerating pace. One of the main reasons: ever-growing waistlines. “The problem,” the newspaper opined, “is increasingly related to unhealthy lifestyles, including poor eating habits and lack of exercise.”

Workers who claim Social Security-based disability income grew 4.4 percent last year, according to government figures, bringing the total for the last 10 years to 50 percent. Industry experts say this trend will probably continue as baby boomers try to work past the age of 65 or 70, but fail because of health-related problems like lower-back and shoulder pain, diabetes, and heart disease. All of these conditions are at least partially related to physical inactivity and obesity.

Some employers are trying to accommodate partially disabled workers by allowing them to work from home or work shorter hours. As the demand for skilled workers increases over the next 10 years, The Wall Street Journal predicts, employers will have to be more flexible to accommodate the baby boomers who will want to work full-time but can’t.

In the meantime, some farsighted executives, like MN, are fighting the battle at the front by investing time and money to keep their healthy employees lean and mean.

Typically, companies that establish fitness programs to help improve their employees’ health do it with the expectation that this will, in turn, reduce their cost of health insurance. But MN is hoping for much more than simply saving money. He hopes to help his people make positive lifestyle changes, lose any extra pounds they have, increase their energy levels, and generally feel better.

As much as we hear and read about eating right, it is still something most people truly don’t understand how to do properly. And most companies, even the ones that have an in-house gym, don’t encourage their employees to schedule workout time during the workday.

MN took the initiative to directly address both of these issues. Here is what he did…

The first thing he tackled was motivating people to do something they hear and think about every day but don’t do: eating right. For this, the company created a challenge much like the challenge on the popular TV series “The Biggest Loser.”

They measured weight loss as a percentage of each employee’s starting weight. This allowed everyone to compete. For example, Person A weighs 275 and loses 25 pounds, dropping 9 percent of his weight. Person B weighs 175 pounds and loses 18 pounds – 7 fewer pounds than person A, but 10 percent of his weight. So, between the two, Person B would win the competition, despite having lost fewer pounds.

They also grouped folks into teams. MN hopes that, by doing this, some friendly rivalry will nudge everyone to work a little harder to meet their goals.

The competition is set to take 12 weeks, at the end of which there will be awards – $1,000 each for the most weight lost by a man, a woman, and a fitness group. So a top-performing male or female employee who is also a member of the top-performing team can win $2,000.

But the money isn’t the real draw to the challenge, which currently has over 25 percent of the staff participating. The real draw is the personal trainer who doubles as a nutritionist / dietitian offering counseling on site before, during, and after work hours.

Employees are encouraged to work out three times a week for a minimum of one hour with the personal trainer (in addition to having group time with him). And the company has made arrangements for exercise classes on the weekend, too.

In the first four weeks, employees shed 450 pounds. With a goal of losing a total of 1,500 pounds, they are right on track.

“This is just one component of some new programs we will be launching for our employees to get healthier this year,” MN told me. “Coming soon is a stop-smoking program, and a new-and-improved employee supplement-purchase program. We will also be developing a wellness library to make sure employees have easy access to information for whatever health problems they and their family are facing.”

In the end, MN’s company will spend more than $75,000 for the weight-loss program. Statistics show that there is a 4-to-1 return – in the form of reduced health care costs – for every dollar spent on health programs. So even if they don’t accomplish their main goal, this will be money well spent.

You don’t need to spend $75,000 to encourage your employees to be healthier. Ask around. With little effort, you’ll find that at least 25 percent of them will support each other in their weight-loss goals. (Here at ETR, for example, a group of staff members have been getting together after work to exercise.)

Recommend that staff members walk or bike to work, and park their cars in the farthest corner of the parking lot. Suggest that they use the stairs rather than elevators. You can also encourage your employees to bring or order in healthy salads for lunch, and maybe take a quick walk during their lunch breaks.

Even these small steps will go a long way toward improving your company’s health.

[Ed Note: In the coming weeks we’ll be giving you insider reports on our staff’s own weight-loss efforts and results. Stay tuned to find out who is ETR’s “Biggest Loser”.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]