In 1985, less than 10% of the Canadian population was obese, having a body mass index (BMI) over 30. Today, the obesity rate has soared to between 30% and 35% of the adult population, according to Arya Sharma, professor and chair of obesity research and management with the University of Alberta.
Presenting at the Canadian Health and Wellness Innovations Conference, hosted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans in Las Vegas, Sharma revealed 23% of adult Canadians can be considered severely obese—defined as a BMI in excess of 35.
“It’s not a rare condition anymore,” he says.
But why, as an employer, should you care? Obesity is the root cause of many chronic illnesses and disabilities. Medical implications of obesity include the following:
- obstructive sleep apnea;
- gall bladder disease;
- polycystic ovarian syndrome;
- coronary heart disease; and
- type 2 diabetes.
And that list is just skimming the surface.
Sharma argues that obesity isn’t choice, people don’t “deserve what they get” because they have done this to themselves. On the contrary, obesity is complex disorder that needs to be treated just as seriously as employers would treat physical or mental issues in the workplace.
What can employers do?
Many organizations offer support for weight loss programs, but Sharma says these are a waste of money. He says for those who want to lose five or 10 pounds these programs may work, but for those who are obese, “you can’t fix it with a diet plan alone; it’s complex, it’s heterogeneous, and you have to treat it that way.”
He adds, “Five percent of people keep the weight off with diet and exercise alone. Therefore, it’s not the best weight management therapy.”
Sharma says that medically assisted options are the most effective treatment for obesity. There are two main bariatric procedures on Canada: gastric bypass and laparoscopic adjustable gastric branding (lap band). But while provincial health plans usually cover gastric bypass surgery, it is nearly impossible to get one.
Most provinces don’t cover lap band surgery, despite proven results, and most individuals who seek coverage for the gastric band under private insurance are declined (outside Quebec).
The gastric band costs about $4,500 and Sharma’s research shows the return on investment can be recovered in two years from the offset of savings in the drug plan, absenteeism, disability claims, work-place injuries, productivity and presenteeism.
“So why aren’t we coving this?” he asks the audience. “It can’t be a cost argument. Not doing it is costing money. We are spending all this money on other stuff that doesn’t work.”
One fear for employers is that if they pay for one person, the floodgates will open and their costs will skyrocket. Sharma assures that this fear is unfounded. “Only 2% of people would only take the surgery even if it was covered, and those who do take it because they need it are the ones that do the best.”
What can I do now?
Sharma says that the single best thing peers can do is acknowledge that they have a problem and recognize the difficulty the obese colleague faces. Removing the blame and shame associated with obesity is one of the easiest things employers and employees can do.
“You can’t force people to [lose weight],” he says, so telling them what they already know—they should exercise, eat better, get help, etc.—is useless. “Nobody wants to be obese.”