Conference Board Weighs In on Obesity Costs

April 9, 2008 ( - Obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenditures and work loss, according to a new report.

In the new report, Weights and Me

Among the report’s findings:

  • Obesity is associated with a 36% increase in spending on health-care services, more than smoking or problem drinking. More than 40% of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs, and 24% more said they plan to do so this year.
  • Estimates of ROI for wellness programs range from zero to $5 per $1 invested. However, ROI aside, these programs may give companies an edge in recruiting and retaining desirable employees, according to the Conference Board.
  • Employers need to weigh the risks of being too intrusive in managing obese employees against the risks of not managing them. The study’s authors say that there is evidence that, as weight goes up, wages go down. “Employers should be fully aware of any potential discrimination risk before addressing employees’ weight, whether for the employee’s own good or that of the company,” according to the report.

The jury is still out on the costs and benefits of paying for employees’ weight-loss surgeries. While obese employees medically eligible for bariatric surgery (about 9% of the workforce) have sharply higher obesity-related medical costs and absenteeism, some say companies are unlikely to recoup surgery costs before these employees have left for other jobs.

The report – which can be purchased online at – includes three case studies:

  • Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), a large self-insured utility with high BMI and low turnover, targets obesity as a major plank in its multifaceted wellness initiatives.
  • H-E-B, a Texas-based retail chain, believes retail’s high turnover can make it all the more important to catch employees, from checkout clerks to executives, under the wellness umbrella.
  • Aetna Inc. says that adding incentives increased participation in its wellness programs and produced major savings.