As America teeters on the edge of recession, various factors have contributed to its broken supply chains, historic inflation, and depleted workforces. One factor that has gone largely overlooked has been a silent burden for employers and employees alike: obesity. This is one of many critical topics highlighted during Obesity Care Week.
Recent national studies highlight the economic costs that obesity imposes on America’s beleaguered workforce. According to a National Institute of Health study, workers with obesity are almost twice as likely to miss work. More likely to be sick or absent from work for longer periods of time, these workers lag in work experience, which reduces their future pay. Researchers estimate that such productivity losses cost America $1.0 trillion annually.
Similarly, workers with obesity are more likely to suffer diabetes and other debilitating diseases that increase healthcare, health insurance, and workers’ compensation costs for employers. A study by Duke Health, for example, revealed that workers with obesity filed twice as many workers’ compensation claims and that average medical claims per 100 employees were more than $50,000 for those with obesity compared to only $7,500 for those without.
Obesity’s indirect costs are expensive, too. Adults with obesity are more likely to remain under employed or forfeit better wages. A Journal of Business and Psychology study warned that workers suffering obesity may lose more than $114,000 in earnings due to productivity losses. And adults with obesity are more likely to remain unemployed entirely, costing them a lifetime of potential income and savings.
Ohio feels the negative side effects of obesity more acutely than most states. With one-third of its workforce fighting obesity, Ohio ranks 15th in the nation. Over the last several years, obesity-related health issues have cost the Ohio Department of Medicaid hundreds of millions of dollars. Additionally, a forthcoming study by The Buckeye Institute’s Economic Research Center estimates that obesity has sidelined more than 32,000 workers — more than enough to construct and fully staff Intel’s new semiconductor plant in central Ohio. And those missing workers have deprived the state of nearly $20 million in tax revenue.
Other states have already taken promising steps to better help those suffering obesity. Ohio should do the same.
Nutrition counseling, surgery, and medication are helpful to obesity sufferers, and Ohio’s state employee health plans have adopted an “all of the above” approach to fighting obesity and getting people with the disease back into the workforce. As those efforts proceed, researchers, employers, and regulators should monitor the results — in Ohio and across the country — and enhance the most successful.
In the meantime, Ohio should also pursue commonsense regulatory reforms to make access to obesity treatments easier and more affordable. Ohio’s nutrition licensing requirements, for example, remain some of the nation’s worst and most stringent, restricting access to diet and nutrition counseling and artificially raising prices. Relaxing those regulatory requirements will lower prices and increase access to life-changing counseling for thousands.
Reducing obesity through prevention and better care in the workforce is a win-win-win for Ohio, employers, and employees battling obesity. Bringing obesity-sufferers back into the labor force will reduce state-funded healthcare costs, boost tax revenue, help alleviate worker shortages and supply chain woes, and provide or increase earnings for those under- or unemployed. Studying obesity prevention and treatment methods, encouraging the public and private sectors alike to implement best practices, and prudent regulatory reforms like relaxing nutrition counseling licensing requirements could help get Ohio on the road to recovery and wellness.
Rea S. Hederman Jr. is executive director of the Economic Research Center and vice president of policy at The Buckeye Institute.