With approximately 42% of Americans qualifying as some level of obese, the obesity issue in the United States is something that touches everyone and every part of our lives, including work. The last decade has created a greater awareness of the causes of obesity and a more nuanced approach to addressing it, one which is sensitive to the unique circumstances under which each person becomes obese. Because a one-size-fits-all strategy rarely works, employers hoping to encourage health and wellness in their employees have tried many approaches to assisting with obesity.
A popular new solution is the use of Glucagon-like peptide-1 or GLP-1 as an obesity treatment. Hailed as a “cure” for obesity, these drugs change a patient’s metabolism, helping them lose weight rapidly. They have become extremely popular over the last few years, but their popularity has ballooned the cost of treatment and put employers in a difficult situation, as these costs threaten to overrun the stability of their insurance benefit programs. As these drugs become more popular, employers are going to have to think about a way to incorporate their use into a broader health program without creating an untenable financial expense.
What are GLP-1 drugs?
Originally created and used for diabetes treatment, these drugs, commonly known as Ozempic or Wegovy, are chemicals that alter the patient’s metabolic state, increasing and sustaining the production of insulin and helping to suppress appetite and slow the digestion of food, which assists greatly with weight loss. Clinical studies show that 70% of participants lost 10% of their weight, with most of it being fat rather than lean muscle.
Because of these successes, the usage of these drugs has quadrupled in the last three years. This has started to crowd out diabetic patients who depend on the drug, but who may struggle to access the drug due to its short supply. It has also created a hefty expense for employers, who are sometimes on the hook for a $900 per month treatment plan.
How do these drugs change employee wellness programs?
Employee wellness programs are diverse and wide-ranging in their goals and expectations. Awareness of issues like mental health and work-life balance has put the onus on employers to address wellness holistically, rather than pushing everyone to join a gym or some other overly simplified approach. In addition to the benefits to employee engagement and retention, and the importance of showing employees that they are cared for by their employer, these programs, if successful, can actually help with the bottom line.
This benefit is evident when examining the impact of obesity on work productivity. One study showed that obese employees have an increased rate of job absenteeism, with time lost increasing by 128.2%. This is just one aspect, as obesity can increase the likelihood of other health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These are all key reasons why employers are invested in building a successful wellness program that respects employee autonomy while creating positive health outcomes.
In this light, the usage of GLP-1 drugs can be analyzed on a cost-benefit basis. The effectiveness of the drug could be measured by looking at the projected risks and costs of maintaining an obese workforce. Because of the benefits and popularity of the drugs, many companies are projecting a large increase in cost commensurate with the continued growth of demand for these treatments.
How can employers adjust to these changes?
Although each employer will have different coverage structures, and therefore different ways of addressing this shift in obesity treatment, these drugs can be successfully incorporated into a wellness program that accounts for their costs and benefits. Taking a look at your wellness program’s handling of obesity, you can begin to build reasonable expectations and measurements for who might need this drug and when it can be considered “preventative medicine”, which makes you responsible for the cost.
For example, an elective weight loss program that includes diet, exercise, and other adjustments to the schedule is probably sufficient for employees under a certain threshold of body mass index (BMI). GLP-1 drugs and other, more significant treatments, such as bariatric surgery, can be covered in more severe cases that may not respond to the above diet and exercise regimen. A program like this offers a balance, giving employees access to the drugs under appropriate circumstances without putting the company in the difficult position of potentially needing to raise premiums.
A different approach could involve learning more about how your employees work, and the ways that their responsibilities may be contributing to obesity. For example, stress has a significant role to play in the national obesity issue, as it leads to coping mechanisms such as “stress-eating” as well as a decrease in physical activity. Creating a healthier work-life balance, distributing responsibilities more evenly, and identifying key employees or teams who may be experiencing high-stress levels could be as effective as a wellness program.
Another issue, often related to stress, is sleep deprivation. Employees who have irregular schedules, work at odd times or are otherwise unable to get consistently good sleep run the risk of altering their metabolism in a way that can lead to overeating. While not all sleep deprivation can be addressed through workplace policy alone, such as a new parent being repeatedly awoken by their child, you can examine the ways that someone’s work schedule may contribute to a loss of sleep. An overly long commute can be ameliorated with a hybrid or remote work option, allowing someone to get more sleep. Creating a communication policy that forbids nonessential workplace communication outside of work hours could help employees unwind and have more fulfilling free time and better rest.
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(Photos by Julia Larson)
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.