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Health researcher Steven Aldana: Obesity reduces job performance

The next time you order that triple cheeseburger or take another slice of cake, consider the potential health consequences of those extra calories – calories that also could affect your job performance.

A new study finds that people who eat healthily and exercise regular tend to show up at work more often and perform better on the job than obese workers. The study used height and weight measures provided by more than 20,000 U.S. employees to calculate body mass index (BMI), which determines obesity.

Absenteeism, or missing work, was 27 percent lower and job performance was 11 percent higher among workers who were not obese, according to the study. The study was conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University, the Center for Health Research at Healthways and the Health Enhancement Research Organization.

steve-aldanaThe study, published January 2013 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found that workers who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables (four or more days a week) were 20 percent more likely to perform better in their jobs. Workers who exercised at least three days a week (for at least 30 minutes) were 15 percent more likely to perform better in their jobs.

Researcher Steven Aldana, a former professor of lifestyle medicine at Brigham Young University and CEO of WellSteps, chatted with about how healthier employees can affect workplaces and business costs.Aldana is the founder of Utah-based WellSteps, which has developed a wellness program to help employees adopt and maintain healthy behavior.

What is the effect of looking at health habits and the workplace?

Most employers in the United States have been focused on health care costs. That’s something they write a check for every single month. However, the bigger expense is actually lost productivity from absenteeism and performance. Dollar for dollar, it’s more expensive.

Because companies don’t write a check (for lost productivity), it doesn’t get the same attention as health care costs. But if you’re sick or have high health risks or type 2 diabetes and are not working to your full potential, it’s a loss.

What’s the significance of your study for employees and employers?

For the first time, the study has connected the dots between poor employee health from a variety of risk factors, including obesity (as well as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and chronic disease) and losses in work productivity. As obesity goes up, ratings of work performance go down. We now have very good data that says organizations are losing productivity and performance because their employees are in poor health. (The study questioned employees working for an insurance company, a health insurance company and health care services company). So if you want to make even more money as an organization by being more productive, improve your employees’ health.

What are key ways companies can promote wellness among employees?

The companies who really understand what it takes to improve employee health do two things. The wellness programs they offer to workers have a very large reach; almost every employee participates. Second, they do things that result in changes in behavior. That’s what we call impact. When a company has a wellness program that does those two things – research and impact – the benefits of having a program (cost savings, health improvements, stepped-up performance and reduced absenteeism) come into place.

What’s an example of a wellness program with strong employee participation?

A holiday weight-loss challenge. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, the goal is to not gain any weight. It’s not a weight-loss program; we just don’t want you to gain. These groups can report how they’re doing every week. It’s a program that changes holiday behavior, and it reaches everybody. It has reach and impact.

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