Campus News

New NIH grant aims to fight obesity epidemic in workplace

David DeJoy

Burgeoning American waistlines pose health risks to individuals and also reduce productivity and raise healthcare costs for businesses. A new study in the College of Public Health aims to create workplace environments that help fight the obesity epidemic.

David DeJoy and Mark Wilson, both of the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health, are partners in a four-year, $4.5 million grant to Cornell University from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The UGA researchers received a $1.1 million subcontract from Cornell to develop interventions to help people manage their diet and weight. Those interventions will be tested by more than 6,000 employees at Dow Chemical Company plants in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia and New Jersey.

More than 60 percent of Americans today are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the trend has increased dramatically in the past decade. The long-term effects of too much weight include type-II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, sleep disorders, stroke, cancer and a lifespan reduced by three to seven years.

“The problems that we as a society are having with obesity are driven at least in part by the environment we live in,” says DeJoy, professor of health promotion and behavior and director of the Workplace Health Group. “What we proposed was to make modifications to the workplace environment to help people achieve and maintain healthy weight levels.”

Dow Chemical already has a sophisticated workplace health-promotion program that focuses on individuals and the development of behavior modification and educational programs, DeJoy says. The grant will add two levels of environmental modification to the program already in place. One level will be to introduce relatively inexpensive and sustainable changes to the workplace.

“Some examples might be to put up signs that encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator or encourage them to park their cars farther out in the parking lot and walk to the building,” says Wilson, associate professor of health promotion and behavior. Other examples might be to work with vending companies and cafeterias to reduce the amount of high-fat, high-sugar items offered, he says.

Research already has shown that these kinds of changes make it easier for people to eat healthy and incorporate physical activity into daily life, DeJoy says.

The second level of environmental modification uses management to change the worksite culture to one that supports improved employee health. Senior managers at Dow will use the same techniques that help them achieve important business objectives to realize health-promotion objectives, according to DeJoy.

“No one has done this systematically before,” he says.

For example, managers might set a goal for employees to walk 15 minutes daily, three days a week, according to Wilson. To achieve that goal, they may have to allow flexible lunch hours or put in a walking track around the building.

Performance reviews for managers and the recognitions and incentives they receive will be partly based on meeting obesity-study goals, he says.

Large companies invest in health promotion as healthcare costs keep increasing and the workforce ages. Plus, employers know that the costs of health-related decreases in productivity are two to three times the cost of healthcare, according to DeJoy. Preventing disease is much less expensive than treating it.

“The work site, like the community and like the school, is a setting for public-health intervention,” DeJoy says. “Employers have lots of tools that can help change the way people behave.”

Organizations can encourage people to participate in activities, provide flexible schedules, buy health-promotion programs, change benefits and take other actions that help promote healthy lifestyles, according to DeJoy.