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Lose Weight--or Lose Your Job?  Your Employer May Be Watching Your Waistline

Lose Weight--or Lose Your Job? Your Employer May Be Watching Your Waistline


Should Big Brother be watching your weight or personal habits? Your government or employer may think so. Even as many employers trim back the amount of healthcare coverage they provide in attempts to cut costs, some believe they should have more say in their employees' lifestyle choices -- including whether they smoke, drink, or exercise, and even how much they weigh.

Kick the Habit -- or Get Kicked to the Curb

While restrictions on smoking in the workplace are now commonplace, some companies are stepping it up a notch by barring smokers from the workplace entirely. In 2006, Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro Company implemented a policy banning all employees from smoking at all -- even at home, or on their own personal time -- and subsequently fired lawn-care technician Scott Rodrigues of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, on his 30 th birthday after he tested positive for nicotine. Though Rodrigues has filed suit against the company, claiming invasion of privacy and civil rights violations (the suit is still pending), Massachusetts and Ohio are among more than 20 states allowing employers to fire employees for tobacco use.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Keep Us Fat

However, as obesity has been shown to be a far more important indicator of chronic health problems than either smoking or heavy alcohol use, more and more companies looking to trim their healthcare costs are eyeing their employees' waistlines. It's no secret that American obesity is a widespread problem -- three-quarters of American adults are overweight, and nearly one-third are classified as obese -- and as a result, obesity-related health issues costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars every year. But how to rectify the problem? While smoking has been effectively demonized as an inarguably harmful vice over the past 50-plus years, individual diet choice has always been an accepted right of American citizens, and despite anti-obesity initiatives, there is no shortage of "fat acceptance" spokesmen and spokeswomen ready to defend Americans' rights to eat what they want to and weigh what they want to.

Fear of a Fat Planet

On the worldwide front, Japan is taking the lead in the fight against workplace obesity. Despite the fact that Japan ranks only 163 rd out of 194 on a World Health Organization list of the "world's fattest countries" with a less than 23 percent overweight population (the United States ranked in the top ten, and was the highest ranking nation with a population greater than 250,000 barring only Kuwait), Japanese lawmakers made worldwide headlines earlier this year after passing a new law requiring all companies and government agencies to monitor their employees' weights. Under the new law, companies whose employees between the ages of 40 and 74 who do not meet government limitations on waistline -- 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women -- will be required to pay more into the Japanese national healthcare system than those who successfully manage to tighten their belts. While there are any number of reasons this approach might never work in the U.S. (our lack of a national healthcare system being only the largest impediment), it did serve as a wake-up call for American businesses trying to trim the fat from their budgets.

Get Well on the Company Dime

What many Americans don't realize is that their employer may already be ready to help them get healthy. Though about a third of health coverage-providing companies in the U.S. provide "wellness" programs for workers looking to lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, or otherwise pursue healthier lifestyles, frequently these programs are little-heralded and unused by the majority of a company's workforce. Nevertheless, if your company offers such a program (often through or with the assistance of an insurer -- ask your company's human resources department for details), they can often be an excellent starting point for personal improvement. Just as most people consider insurance benefits part of their employment compensation, these wellness programs can confer additional benefits with immediate results, and the free or heavily discounted health and fitness opportunities they offer are perfect for many people leery of committing to health-club memberships or their own personal diet coaches.

Future Trends in Fat-Trimming

However, should these measures not succeed in reducing American waistlines along with companies' insurance overhead over time, it's difficult not to wonder if American companies may eventually follow in the steps of the Japanese government and impose similarly draconian limits on abdominal excess. While one might think freedom-loving Americans would find such measures difficult to stomach, consider this: before the 1950s, anyone proffering the idea that smoking would one day be banned in workplaces, restaurants, and public facilities, or that the act of smoking would one day considered legitimate grounds for dismissal, would most likely have been laughed out of the room.

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