• Wellness In The Workplace
  • December 15, 2003
  • Law Firm: McGlinchey Stafford, PLLC - New Orleans Office
  • On appeal, a large car manufacturing company lost a case involving its FMLA policy when the court determined that requiring an official request within three days of an unforeseen leave violates the Family and Medical Leave Act because it creates an unreasonable barrier to exercising an employee's rights under the act. Unforeseen illnesses and absences are one issue, but what about those health problems that management can see bearing down on the company like a freight train? Let's look at obesity and smoking risks.

    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)states that obesity-related health problems cost U.S. businesses $13 billion in 1994. The report, "Prevention Makes Common Cents," (available on the Web at http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/prevention) details obesity's rising price tag for corporate America from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. It said that in 1994, employees lost 39.3 million workdays because of conditions associated with obesity -- a 50 percent increase since 1988. Obesity-associated conditions were the cause of 62.7 million visits to physician's offices, and 239 million days were logged where employees' activities were restricted because of conditions linked to obesity.

    The figures are increasing every year. Over 30 percent of Americans are now obese, which is defined as roughly 30 or more pounds overweight. Government researchers predict that about 40 percent of Americans, or 68 million people, will be obese by 2010 if people keep gaining weight at the current rate.

    The overweight are at an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis and other health problems such as high cholesterol, high insulin, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.

    Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the agency's report illustrates the need for employers to make health promotion a part of their business strategies. Included in a company's wellness and work/life programs could be disease management programs, flu immunizations, cancer and other screenings. A smoking cessation program could be very helpful.

    Recent survey information shows the many negative results of tobacco dependence. Among the ailments that the tobacco-dependent suffer in greater proportion than the general population are (all percentages represent the tobacco dependent versus the general adult population):

    • sleeping difficulties (29 % v. 3 %),
    • sinus congestion (28 % v. 8 %),
    • high blood pressure (33 % v. 15 %),
    • colds and cough (28 % v. 7 %),
    • migraines (21% v. 4 %), and
    • fatigue (34 % v. 2 %).

    The HHS report points to Motorola, Inc., a company that has an extensive wellness program in place. That company reports saving almost $4 for every $1 it puts into its wellness benefits. With the ever increasing cost of healthcare, such programs seem a wise investment.

    The battle over rising health care costs has long pitted employers against insurers. Now, with health insurance premium increases beginning to filter down to the plan participants, workers, too, will have a growing interest in keeping costs at a minimum. The financial burden shift could pit worker against worker.

    Beyond the obvious fat-versus-thin or smokers versus non-smokers, there are healthy young workers who question why they should help pay for diabetic seniors. Workers can look around and see how a handful of serious illnesses pushes up the cost of coverage for everyone.

    One small Indiana electric motor manufacturer says some of his workers reject the idea of sharing the cost burden with their less-health-conscious colleagues. The company has long had a system that penalizes workers who smoke, are obese or suffer from hypertension. Those workers have to pay $50 a month for health insurance. Those whose habits are deemed more healthful get the coverage free.