April 10, 2015
Workplace wellness programmes can help people lose weight, but are more effective when staff are actively involved in the process, a new study has found. The results of a two-year project published in the American Journal of Public Health show that providing healthier food choices and increasing opportunities for physical activity, successfully reduced the number of people considered overweight or obese by almost 9 percent. Results were particularly good when these efforts were designed with the input and active participation of employees. An estimated 68 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. As they spend on average a third of their lives at work; researchers based at the University of Rochester’s Department of Public Health Sciences worked with a local company to see how effective workplace intervention could be in addressing the obesity problem.
“Worksites are self-contained environments with established communication systems where interventions that modify food options and provide physical activity have the potential to reach large numbers of adults,” said Diana Fernandez, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences and lead author of the study.
“This study shows in particular that when employees are empowered to help shape wellness programmes, these programmes appear to result in meaningful improvements in health.”
In recent years, many companies have established wellness programs in an effort to improve productivity, decrease absenteeism, and reduce health insurance costs. Recent surveys by the Rand Corporation and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimate that as many as half of U.S. firms have wellness programs or incentivise healthy behaviour.
While studies have indicated that these programmes can reduce employees’ health risk and potentially slow the growth of health care costs, the impact of these approaches on obesity rates has not been studied in depth.
Reducing obesity rates – through changing diets and increasing physical activity – is a key target for public health policy as it places individuals at greater risk for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The researchers worked with the Rochester-based company with ten different sites being randomised into two groups and the study examined a total of 3,799 individuals. The researchers worked with management and employees in the intervention group to establish workplace programmes that focused on healthy eating and increasing physical activity. The control group did not receive any intervention.
In each of the intervention sites, the researchers and the company established employee advisory boards to help them better understand the particular worksite’s culture and determine which approaches would be appropriate and well-received. The authors point to employee involvement as a key factor in driving broader participation.
Dietitians met with cafeteria managers to help them modify recipes so that the same meals could be prepared with fewer calories or in smaller portions while a variety physical activity programmes were introduced depending upon the worksite.
To measure the effectiveness of these changes, the researchers measured the body mass index (BMI) of employees at the beginning and the end of the two-year program. BMI is a calculation that takes into account weight and height. A person with a BMI of more than 25 is considered to be overweight and a score of greater than 30 is considered obese.
At the end of the study period, the number of employees in the control site who were overweight/obese increased by about 5 percent, while the number in the intervention group had decreased by 4 percent resulting in a net difference of 9 percent.
“This study suggests that worksite environmental interventions might be promising strategies for weight control at the population level,” said Fernandez. “These observations lend support to the approaches that might eventually reduce the incidence and prevalence of overweight and obesity on a larger scale.”