Will employers stop hiring overweight workers?

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Will employers stop hiring overweight workers?

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While this question is meant to be provocative it is also a very serious one based on emerging trends in corporate employment practices. Already companies like Alaska Airlines, Cleveland Clinic and Turner Broadcasting are filtering out employment candidates who smoke tobacco products, figuring it will significantly reduce their health insurance costs. In 21 states this is a legal hiring discrimination.

If employers routinely reject people who engage in risky, but legal, behavior on their own time, what about such things as overeating, drinking too much alcohol or riding motorcycles? If smoker bans reduce health care expenses, cost-conscious employers might be tempted to stake out new and even more intrusive territory in the name of “corporate wellness.”

With healthcare costs soaring annually such discrimination is likely to increase, as will state-by-state attempts at legislating bans against the practice. After all, it’s empirically known that 20% of the employees represent 80% of the healthcare tab. So why not just cut out the unhealthiest 20% and reduce insurance costs by 80%?

In most industries it would be foolish to dispose of otherwise-ideal candidates simply because of their potential impact on the insured pool expense. With obesity recently overtaking smoking as the #1 preventable cause of death it is time for our society to put the same emphasis on solving the obesity problem as we did in attacking the smoking problem over the past two decades. We need scalable, effective strategies to reduce obesity, not discriminate against those who suffer from it.

Rather than creating a very large pool of unemployable unhealthy workers, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to help them get healthy instead? Smoking cessation programs did wonders in the fight against Big Tobacco’s scourge. In corporate America the treadmill desk can become the equivalent in beating back obesity and diabetes rates among workers. After all, the corporations themselves have had a hand in creating sitting disease by placing their workers in chairs in front of computers, in endless meetings, on endless commutes and endless flights.

If every major employer offered their most sedentary employees (and those with the longest commutes or greatest frequent flier mileage) the option of a treadmill desk they’d see their health care costs come down a lot faster. The alternative of taking on the next-best employment candidates to the ones you could have had seems to be a penny-wise and pound-foolish strategy.

Let’s compare the costs, shall we? Excellent multi-user treadmill desk workstations can be purchased for under $3,000. If corporations set up treadmill desk “salons” in each department or at several locations on each floor of each building the average amortized investment cost per employee could be as little as $50 to $100 per year. (No reason not to make treadmill desks available to all employees and keep the healthy ones healthy even longer.)

On the other side of the balance sheet is the lost productivity resulting from hiring second-best candidates and turnover of some overweight employees who will surely feel alienated in an atmosphere that discriminates against heavier people. In certain departments like IT – where most all jobs are sedentary and employee health is generally the worst – the real world result of such hiring discrimination could be devastating.

Companies that have made it easy for employees to requisition treadmill desks are seeing the benefits. These employees tend to be not just healthier but happier on their jobs and less likely to turnover. If you’re looking for a simple, tangible proof of cost benefit, providing treadmill desks to employees (whatever their health status) has proven to be one of the best investments a company can make in retaining their most valuable and hardest-working employees.