Human Capital & Careers

Weighty Delusion Could Hike Health Costs

Most employees think they are in good health, but more than half of them are wrong.
David McCannFebruary 7, 2013

There’s no question that a healthy workforce is more productive and cheaper than a less healthy one. But employees’ unrealistic self-appraisals may hinder employers’ efforts to nudge them toward healthy behaviors, a new survey suggests.

Among nearly 2,900 employees at a wide range of companies with more than 1,000 workers, 87% said their health was at least good. Only 23% said they were overweight or obese, yet almost three times that many (66%) reported height and weight suggesting a body mass index (BMI) that would classify them as overweight or obese according to standard definitions.

That means more than half (53%) of those who reported being in good health actually had a higher BMI than is thought to be consistent with good health.

“That is a dollars-and-cents finding,” says Joann Hall Swenson, health engagement leader at consulting firm Aon Hewitt, which sponsored the study along with the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and The Futures Co. “When we have unrealistic views of our health, we don’t necessarily take the right actions to be healthier. In the long run, that will affect companies’ finances.”

“It’s a disturbing message,” agrees Helen Darling, chief executive of the NBGH, which represents the interests of 350 large-employer members on health-care matters. Still, companies should be realistic about what actions will motivate employees, she says. “A healthy skepticism about what will work over the long term is good.”

For example, the NBGH advises its members to think twice about offering to pay for employees’ gym memberships. “That’s not necessarily going to get you very much,” Darling says. “You will immediately be paying for something that healthy, fit people were already paying for.” More to the point, meaningful health improvements will come only with a long-term commitment to work out, “and the number of other people who will take that up, and stick with it even if they do, is pretty light.”

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