U.S. and Australia Disagree On How To Handle Overweight Employees

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may seem wantonly unsympathetic or justifiably pragmatic, depending on how you feel about the government’s role in managing obesity. Last month, Rudd objected to the use of tax money to fund weight loss courses for pudgy government officials. Documents released that week revealed that almost $23,000 (U.S.) would go toward providing the classes to upper-tier workers from Centrelink, an employment agency, as explained in a Brietbart.com article.

“It would be odd and unusual in the extreme for that sort of expenditure to be justifiable,” Rudd said.

The same day, GovernmentExecutive.com released news that President Obama had met with leaders from Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, the Ohio Department of Health and others to discuss ways to promote employee health, citing wellness programs as a way to ramp up savings in the future.

In businesses around the country, the White House said in a statement, “productivity is increasing, absenteeism is dropping, and employers are passing some of their health care savings to their workers,” thanks to the programs. Obama has also directed the Office of Personnel Management to find a way to implement the same efforts in federal workplaces, and the White House’s new Health Workforce Act is receiving overwhelming bipartisan support.

The Australian Prime Minister may think Obama is barking, but the President actually does have reason to believe that the health program will have its rewards. Coors Brewing Co., for example, set up its wellness program in the 1980s; since then, the article reported, the Colorado-based company has seen a $5.50 return for every $1 spent on employee health. IBM has recently boasted of similar success.

Various governmental agencies, including the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the Veterans Affairs Department (which runs a MOVEmployees campaign) and the state of Ohio (with its Take Charge! Live Well program), already participate in health programs of their own.

Richard Harvey, program manager for health promotion at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, is enthusiastic about the movement.

“Healthy employees are more engaged, they take better care of their patients,” Harvey said of the Veterans Health Administration, who is currently setting up a health appraisal for both employees and clients. “There’s a lot of support at the highest levels to be doing this, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but for economic and patient care reasons.”

Harvey explained that the sheer size of the federal workforce meant that savings in the Fed’s contributions to health insurance could equal big cost cuts in the future.

Still, he said, results won’t be immediate. “It takes a while to change things in the government.”

Some government agencies, like the Alabama State Employees Board, are even providing disincentives for employees who have or are considering gaining extra baggage; the board announced last year that it would be charging a $25 monthly fee for obese workers, which they could avoid by enrolling in a wellness program, GovernmentExecutive.com reported.

In contrast, Australia (which, as the Australia-based Baker Heart Institute suggested in 2008, faces a “fat bomb” overshadowing even that of the United States) is taking a more accommodating  approach. Australian emergency services in New South Whales have introduced special “mega-lift” ambulances for patients weighing more than 400 pounds, undertakers are stocking massive coffins and consumer authorities are considering changing the standards on products such as toilets and child car seats to accommodate heftier loads.

This contrast in policy may provoke a greater level of serious debate over the questions of what, if anything, is really problematic with being fat and what role, if any, the government has in avoiding the public health ramifications of widespread obesity.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com


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