In anticipation of Obesity Week, which takes place nationally the week of November 1-4, Obesity Action Coalition President and CEO Joe Nadglowski spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how employers can best support employees and what employees need to know about their wellness options.
NAN PRICE: What are some of the top tips for employers to help their employees maintain their health goals?
JOE NADGLOWSKI: The one thing I ask all employers to do is thoroughly review what they’re doing as an organization to benefit their employees. Many times, employers will say, we’ve cleaned up our cafeteria and we’ve made physical activity available. The prevention part of obesity is part of the formula. But what I often see is lacking is the treatment side.
Have employers taken a hard look at what they’re doing within their insurance benefits, wellness programs, or employee assistance programs to benefit people with obesity? Often, we see gaps there. You’re not a good employer addressing obesity unless you’re doing all these things. That means working to prevent obesity and making sure your employees who have obesity can get treated for it.
NAN: Once they do that internal review, how can employers make improvements?
JOE: The first thing to do is to make sure they’re covering the breadth of treatments for obesity. That could include counseling, whether it’s through commercial programs that might be available in your wellness program or your employee assistance program or counseling through the insurance company. The treatments could also include anti-obesity medications or bariatric surgery.
Normally, where we see the gaps from an employer perspective is when they’re not covering anti-obesity medications. The other thing they may not be covering is the mental health support that’s often needed around obesity. Granted, not everyone with obesity has mental health issues, but there’s a lot of bias and stigma associated with obesity. Coping with some of these societal issues is quite challenging.
Most people with obesity experience some bias and they internalize that bias and start to believe it, which jeopardizes their journey toward better health. So, making sure you have the mental health services to support people as they’re seeking better health is very much key.
As a person living with obesity, it can be challenging to understand what your benefits are and where they exist. I suggest employers, as well as county governments, state governments, and city governments put together a simple resource sheet for their employees or the folks on their health plan to let them know where all these resources exist, because unfortunately they’re not in one place.
NAN: What kind of resources are available to both employers and employees?
JOE: If you woke up this morning and said, today’s the day I want to do something about my obesity, where do I start? Those resources are available from us at the Obesity Action Coalition.
And if you’re an employer, I would take a hard look at those resources as well. Understanding Your Obesity Treatment Options is one of our brochures. Employers can look at their health benefits and find out if they’re covering those services.
I would also challenge employers to find out whether they’re somehow discouraging people from utilizing the care and their benefits. There’s this worry that people will over utilize obesity care, but in actuality, very few people utilize obesity care. We need to change that. We need to stop making people earn the right to have obesity care and make it more widely available.
We should take advantage of what’s available because there’s an opportunity to provide better health and a better quality of life. And if you’re an employer that means a better employee for your company.
NAN: What can Connecticut do overall to improve how the state is offering these types of benefits?
JOE: By examining all the resources the state is offering. The state obviously controls healthcare for a large number of people, including Medicaid and state employee programs. It’s probably time to take a look at those programs to figure out what the state does and doesn’t cover. And, if the state does cover it, is it being covered with barriers that make it unlikely that people would utilize these services?
Again, there’s a big fear that people are going to over utilize these services, but that’s not what we see in the real world. The federal government just made a big change by adding anti-obesity medication coverage and expanding childhood obesity treatment for their federal employees. I think a state like Connecticut could do something similar for its own employees.
And by the way, this goes beyond just the state itself. Healthcare is controlled by counties, cities, and employers, which should all take a look at their benefits as well.
NAN: On the flip side, what is Connecticut doing well?
JOE: Overall, when we look at the state of Connecticut, obesity rates are lower than the national average. So, there’s obviously some commitment and some understanding of the health impact of obesity and one of the good things is we see lower obesity rates in the state.
NAN: Earlier, you mentioned the stigma around obesity. Can you expand?
JOE: We have to approach this topic with some caution. Not everyone who lives in a larger body has obesity, which is difficult for some people to understand. Just because your BMI is above 30, does not mean you have obesity. Obesity is having extra body fat that harms your health. It takes a medical provider to make that diagnosis. No one should diagnose themselves with obesity. We’re warned against diagnosing ourselves with other diseases, so let’s not diagnose ourselves with obesity.
The other thing is body size versus obesity. They’re very different. We have people who used to weigh 500 pounds and now weigh 400 pounds. They’ve done something remarkable by losing 100 pounds. In society’s eyes, they’re unsuccessfully treated because they’re still in a larger body. But in the medical community’s eyes, they’re very successfully treated. And in fact, they may no longer have any health impact from obesity because they’ve lost that significant amount of weight.
This issue is complicated but one of the key things is to separate how people look or judge their body size from obesity. It’s challenging because we’ve been preconditioned to think differently, but obesity is about having health impacts from having too much body fat, not just about your size.