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Overweight employees could be costing you millions, if not billions, of dollars.
Tom Gilliam offers seven tips on cutting that bill down to size.

If you have overweight employees, you probably know they're costing you money. Common sense tells you they take more sick days (which leads to lower productivity) and have higher medical bills (which equal higher insurance costs). But you may not realize the severity of the problem. Thomas B. Gilliam, Ph.D., invites you to simply scan the news. You'll quickly discover that obesity is costing you big bucks—and that it's in your best interest to help them get the weight off now.

"I read an article in The Wall Street Journal that reported that an obese employee costs General Motors about $1,500 more in health services each year compared to an employee with a healthy body weight," says Gilliam, co-author (along with Jane Neill, R.D., L.D.) of Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.: Achieve a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time! (T. Gilliam & Associates, LLC, 2005, ISBN: 0-9762703-0-7, $19.95). "It went on to say that when you consider that about 26 percent of GM's active workers and dependents are obese, the problem is costing the company nearly $1.4 billion more in healthcare costs each year.

"Another article, this one in the Chicago Tribune, stated that big companies have seen per-worker healthcare costs increase by more than 80 percent just since 2000," he adds. "That is a shocking jump. When you consider the fact that over 60 percent of the workforce is either overweight or obese, you have to assume that weight is a big part of the problem. And you have to realize that getting your employees to slim down can result in significant savings for your company. There's simply no denying it."

Perhaps not. But there's a huge gulf between knowing employees need to lose weight and "making" them lose it. You're veering into sensitive territory. That's why corporations hire experts to design and implement wellness programs--like Gilliam's own Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.--for their workers.

"Encouraging weight loss is a touchy issue," admits Gilliam. "Leaders think, 'Well, it's a personal matter and how much someone weighs is his or her own business.' The whole subject makes leaders uncomfortable. But the truth is, if you pay health insurance for your employees, obesity is your business. It directly relates to your economic health, which affects all of your employees in a very tangible way."

So how do you go about getting overweight workers to slim down? Gilliam offers several suggestions:

· Be honest with people about the impact of their excess weight. It's natural to dread these types of conversations, but remember that your employees are adults. They can handle it. Tell employees honestly and directly that it's difficult to provide higher wages and better benefits when so much of the company's money is going to support illnesses that could be prevented. If you're implementing a company-wide weight loss initiative, you can make these points in a letter or a kick-off meeting. But don't discount the power of personal, face-to-face conversations. People will respect you more if you look them in the eye and tell the truth--and if you express concern for their well-being (rather than focusing solely on the money), they may even be touched and appreciative.

· Commit to helping them lose weight. It's easy to make any lifestyle change if you have support. And having the full, committed backing of the company you work for is a significant benefit. Gilliam recommends structured programs like his own Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy. because they make the whole thing more "official" and have built-in tools and techniques that increase the likelihood of success. But it's certainly possible to "wing it" and create your own program, especially if you're a small company. Just be sure to invite all employees to participate. This will keep certain employees from feeling "picked on" and will provide a helpful sense of teamwork. And let's face it--there are few people who don't have at least five pounds they want to drop!

· Offer incentives. What those incentives are can vary wildly. Some companies may give small cash bonuses or gift certificates for reaching pre-determined milestones. Others may offer discounted insurance premiums. Still others make it a "team thing" and set up friendly competitions between departments; the team that collectively loses the most weight gets rewarded with, say, an afternoon off. "Even small incentives are powerful," says Gilliam. "Let's be honest: walking every day and forgoing your coffee and doughnut break can be a drag. People like working toward a concrete reward. Be creative. Make it fun.

"Oh, and one more point," he adds. "You also need to recognize that group of people who have normal BMIs and manage to maintain them. After all, it's that gradual, ten-pounds-every-year weight gain that leads to problems over time. People who don't let that happen deserve to be rewarded--and they'll rightfully feel resentful if their conscientiousness is ignored."

· Teach employees the basics of weight loss. The only way to lose weight and keep it off is to consume a moderate, nutritious diet and exercise regularly. Period. Fad diets, fitness gadgets, and other get-thin-quick schemes won't work. Obviously, though, plenty of people are buying into them or the sellers wouldn't be doing such a booming business. Educate your employees on the realities of weight loss. A book such as Gilliam and Neill's, Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.: Achieve a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time!, can serve as a solid foundation for your corporate effort.

· Get your employees excited about good nutrition. Create a "recipe" bulletin board--the old-fashioned "cork board" kind or the virtual online kind--so that employees can share the details of their delicious finds and their own culinary creations. Host a potluck lunch to which everyone brings his or her favorite healthful dish. Or ask employees to take turns bringing in fresh fruits, veggie trays, or other lowfat snacks for people to munch on during break. Don't forget to remove all "junk food" from the premises. It's hard to stay on track when vending machines packed with grease and sugar and trans fatty acids beckon with their sinister glow.

· Foster and encourage exercise groups. Human beings are social creatures. They are much more likely to sustain an exercise program if they have company. Hire an aerobics instructor to come in several times a week--during pre- or post-work hours--to lead everyone in a vigorous workout. Start a lunch-hour walking group. You might even put a treadmill, stair-step machine, and weight bench in a vacant room so that employees can have their own "gym." (Just ask everyone to sign a waiver so you're legally covered in case of injury.)

· Link weight loss to larger family issues. No one wants to be obese. But most people want their children to be obese even less. Offering to help employees set a healthy example for their children can be a powerful motivator. That's why Gilliam's Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy. program has a strong child-centric component--including cartoon characters with names like Heart "E" Heart, Sticky Lipid, and Thundering Triglyceride. "I've found that when you say to people, 'Look, every time you open a new bag of potato chips and collapse in front of the TV, your kids are watching you,' they pay attention," he says. "Hey, guilt can be a very useful tool. Ask any mother."

Ultimately, says Gilliam, prodding employees to take control of their body weight can start a cascade of positive results for companies--many of which may surprise you.

"Losing weight can be a very life-affirming experience," he says. "People gain confidence. They get happier. They see firsthand the rewards of working hard to meet goals. Ultimately, this translates to more effective, productive employees who are likely to feel intense loyalty to you for helping them turn things around. So a company that empowers people to lose weight may not only see an improvement in healthcare costs, it may gain better employees. And that, in and of itself, is a good reason to make the commitment."

# # #

Ten Weight Loss and Healthy Tips to Post on
Your Employee Bulletin Board

Excerpted from Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.:
Achieve a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time!
(T. Gilliam & Associates, LLC, 2005, ISBN: 0-9762703-0-7, $19.95).

· Realize that thinner bodies can equal fatter wallets. It is difficult for companies to improve benefits and provide higher wages when so much more of the company's money is going to support illnesses that can be prevented. The average cost of a disability claim caused by obesity for a worker in 2004 was $51,000 per year. With over 60 percent of the workforce either overweight or obese, the number of these claims can only go up.

· Keep an exercise calendar. Every time you complete your exercise for the day, write it down on your calendar. Keep track of the duration, kind of exercise performed (walking, biking, and so on) and speed or pace if you know it. Writing it down adds to your sense of accomplishment on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.

· Slow and steady wins the weight loss race. What if you just consumed one roll a day instead of two and used two tablespoons of salad dressing instead of three? That is a caloric savings of 105 calories. One hundred five calories a day for an entire year is 38,325 calories for the year. This will result in a weight loss of about 11 pounds.

· Smart margarine shopping. To reduce the amount of trans fatty acids in your diet, use less margarine and choose a margarine that lists "liquid oil," such as liquid olive oil, liquid canola oil, or liquid corn oil, as the first ingredient on the food label. (Ingredients are listed in descending order. So the first ingredient is in the highest quantity in the product.)

· Write it down. Write it down. Write it down! Keep a detailed dietary record of what you eat for at least three days. (Go to healthybodyweight.com to download a helpful chart.) Most people will say, "I know what I eat. I don't have to write it down." Don't believe it. You probably underestimate. Writing it down helps you evaluate where in your diet you can make the small changes that will make a big difference.

· When going to restaurants, be aware of "healthy" and "unhealthy" menu terms. Terms to look for: baked, simmered, marinara, marsala, roasted, wine based, stir-fried. Terms to avoid: alfredo, hollandaise, au gratin, béchamel, mornay, béarnaise.

· Teach kids healthy lifestyle habits from the beginning. Many lifestyle habits and behaviors are established by the time a child is eight. This means physical activity habits and eating habits are pretty well set and are very difficult to change after the age of eight. Remember, today's children are tomorrow's workforce.

· Create healthy attitudes toward food by involving kids in meal preparation. Letting them wash fruit or vegetables or stir a mixture helps to create an interest in foods. Older children can learn to set the table and prepare beverages. And don't forget to ask for help in clearing the table, washing the dishes, and putting things away.

· Three quick, easy, healthy breakfast ideas for kids. Plain or toasted lean ham or turkey sandwich spread lightly with mayonnaise accompanied by fresh apple slices or wedges and skim milk . . . Your favorite lowfat yogurt topped with dry, crunchy whole grain cereal, fresh chopped berries and nuts along with iced or bottled water . . . Toasted whole grain bagel spread with your choice of natural peanut butter or fat free flavored cream cheese served with fresh banana or your favorite seasonal fruit and skim milk.

· Go outside and enjoy the weather. For many, fall is a great time of year to get some exercise outdoors. Check out your local and state parks for some biking and hiking. As always, don't forget the safety gear. And drink water frequently to avoid dehydration.

# # #

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