Part of an ongoing series on obesity in America
As companies feel the financial burden of the obesity epidemic, some are trying to help their bottom line by helping employees with their waistline. One of the largest such efforts is at the Dow Chemical Company, which has operations in Michigan, Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia — all states with some of the highest obesity rates in the nation.
At 6:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, maintenance superintendent Jeff Leasher is dripping sweat, coming into his last stretch on a stationary cycle. He's in one of two on-site gyms at Dow headquarters in Midland, Mich.
"There's five or six of us who show up about 5:00 every morning," he says, his breath short from exertion.
Three years ago Leasher was obese and — a Dow nurse told him — at high risk for diabetes. He's since shed a hundred pounds, thanks to the camaraderie of colleagues, he says.
"You're struggling, you see your teammates and they're struggling also, and there was a strength in that," he says. "You almost felt [that] if you didn't make it, that you were letting the team down."
Dow offers heavily subsidized gym fees, fitness trainers and nutrition specialists. Why? Of course it wants workers healthy and happy. But in 2004, managers got a jolt. Despite Dow's decades-long promotion of good health, a study found that 1 in 3 employees was obese, the same as the national average. Catherine Baase, the global director of Dow's health services, knew that this meant lost productivity, and that it was helping to drive up Dow's health care costs by 8 percent to 10 percent a year.
"If we just were successful in keeping our spend at the lower end of that inflation rate," she says, "that would be tens of millions of dollars per year."
Dow expanded its health plan, providing even more coverage for weight and diabetes management. And then it went further. So many times, Baase says, companies try to make a change but complain the workplace "culture" just doesn't support it.
"If culture is that powerful," she says, "and if peers and culture and the environment matter that much, then we ought to impact that."
To that end, in Dow's corporate gym at midmorning, you can find Ron Edmonds, vice president and corporate controller, striding on a cardio machine.
"Hopefully I'm a role model," he says, noting that he encourages staff members to come work out as well. "They know I'm flexible. As long as they get their job done, and they all do, I don't care when they come."
Edmonds, by the way, has dropped 60 pounds, along with the medication he used to take for cholesterol and trigylcerides. Another manager actually invited his staff to join him for workouts, calling it "Get Fit With Bob."
Dow also holds Friday 5Ks on a woodsy walking trail, which it keeps plowed in winter. Health director Baase recommends "walking meetings."
"Just say, 'Let's walk while we're meeting,' " Baase says. "And if you're just brainstorming or talking through some project, it's easy to do walking."
Or, some use small recorders to take notes of the meeting while they walk, then type them up later.
Whatever employees need to get healthy, Dow's aim is to make it easy. Want some structure and supervision to shed a few pounds? Health promotion coordinator Peggy Sczepanski leads classes on demand. She'll teach employees to read food labels or bring a scale for weekly weigh-ins.
"I've had some work groups; they wanted it a little bit harsher," Sczepanski says.
That meant the group agreed on consequences if members didn't meet their weight-loss goals. She remembers one in particular, whose "consequence was that they would need to wear their bathing suit in front of the group. That was pressure enough that they were going to stick to the plan." And they all did.
Terry Merritt works in purchasing at Dow and took another one of Sczepanski's classes last year.
"I was a size 22, almost a 24, and now I'm a size 10," she says.
Merritt had struggled with weight for decades. She's a lifetime member of Weight Watchers, but says this was just so convenient.
"You took your lunch hour, [Sczepanski] came to our building," she says. "I didn't even have to leave the building. It made it so easy to get started."
Colleagues have been amazed by her transformation, she says, and are coming to her for encouragement and advice.
Encouraging Healthy Choices
None of the programs at Dow are mandatory, and, unlike at many companies, there is no financial incentive to take part. But Dow's effort to change the culture around health is sweeping.
The latest changes are in the corporate cafeteria, which boasts the usual racks of chips, even hot, cheesy pizza. But over at the salad bar, utensils are now color-coded.
"So you'll see green utensils on those things that are real healthy," says Sczepanski. Things like broccoli, spinach, beets. Yellow handles mean caution, and red is for temptations like bacon bits and high-fat dressing.
"Our message isn't to be food Nazis," she says, "but just to make sure that employees are educated, they're aware, and at a glance, they're able to make the healthy choice if they choose."
But there's more that diners may not even notice. Many healthier items are now 10 percent to 20 percent cheaper than less healthy options. In that crucial spot next to the cashier, stacks of cookies and brownies have been switched out for fruit and granola bars.
"And we've seen a steady increase in our percent of healthy food sales over the last year," Sczepanski says.
This is harder than it sounds. Corporate food vendors want to protect their profit margin, and other businesses say they've gotten push-back when they tried to go healthy. Sczepanski says she spent years building up the relationship until she was finally able to get some of these changes, including healthy food labeling, in Dow's vendor contract.
Studies suggest wellness programs do pay off. Johnson & Johnson credits its program with saving $565 in medical costs per employee, per year. Since Dow Chemical launched its effort, health director Baase says the obesity rate among its U.S. employees has flat-lined.
"Nobody has figured out how to solve this, exactly," she says. "We're putting our best effort at it, and we are definitely seeing results."
But Baase cautions that fighting obesity is a long-term commitment. Dow recently joined a community-wide effort to promote diet and exercise in Michigan schools, aiming to curb obesity among future employees.
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