Living Large: Obesity In America
12:29 pm
Thu October 27, 2011

Corporations Offer Help In Trimming The Waist

Originally published on Wed August 1, 2012 5:04 pm

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."

Changing Culture

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.

If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, the cost of obesity. We heard yesterday about the cost to U.S. employers, that estimate including loss productivity is $73 billion a year.

Well, today, NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports that many companies are trying to do something about that by helping employees lose weight and get fit.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Dow Chemical is a big company in a big state. Michigan has one of the nation's highest obesity rates. In fact, Dow is also in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia - all places on the wrong end of the obesity scale. It's thousands of employees faced the fast food chains and sedentary lifestyle that have helped fuel America's obesity epidemic. But inside Dow's headquarters in Midland, Michigan...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXERCISE CLASS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Keeping moving, everybody. High, high, low, low...

LUDDEN: At 10:30 on a Tuesday, there's a good turnout for this turbo kick class, one of a slew of classes all day long, here and at a second gym near Dow's manufacturing plant.

JEFF LEASHER: There's about five or six of us who show up about 5:00 every morning, and have for the last - as long as I've been here - about three years.

LUDDEN: Maintenance superintendent Jeff Leasher is dripping sweat, and the sun is not even up. In red T-shirt and black shorts, he's in the last stretch on a stationary cycle. Three years ago, Leasher was obese and a Dow nurse told him at high risk for diabetes. He's since shed 100 pounds, thanks, he says, to the camaraderie of colleagues.

LEASHER: You're struggling, you look around, see your teammates. They're struggling also and there was a strength in that. And you almost felt if you didn't make it, that you were letting the team down.

LUDDEN: Dow offers heavily subsidized gym fees, fitness trainers, nutrition specialists. Why? Of course, it wants workers healthy and happy. For decades, Dow promoted good health. But in 2004, managers got a jolt. A study found one in three employees was obese, same as the national average.

Global health director Catherine Baase knew this meant lost productivity, and was helping drive up Dow's health care costs by eight, nine, 10 percent a year.

CATHERINE BAASE: If we just were successful in keeping our spend at the lower end of that inflation rate, that would be tens of millions of dollars per year.

LUDDEN: 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.

BAASE: If culture is that powerful, and if peers and culture and the environment matter that much, then we ought to impact that.

LUDDEN: So, back at the gym, midmorning, you can find Ron Edmonds, Dow vice president and corporate controller - no, not in turbo kick. He's over on the cardio machine.

RON EDMONDS: I mean, first off, I hopefully I'm a role model because I come here and people recognize that. So, they know I'm very flexible. And as long as they get their job done, and they all do, I don't care when they come.

LUDDEN: Edmonds, by the way, has dropped 60 pounds, along with the meds he used to take for cholesterol and triglycerides. Another manager actually invited his staff to join him for workouts, calling it Get Fit With Bob.

But if the gym is not your thing, Dow holds Friday 5Ks on this woodsy walking trail, and even keeps it plowed in winter. Health director Baase recommends walking meetings.

BAASE: Just say, let's walk while we're meeting. And if you're just talking anyway, if you're brainstorming or talking through some project, it's easy to do walking.

LUDDEN: Whatever employees need to get healthy, the 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.

PEGGY SCZEPANSKI: I had some work groups that they wanted it, I'll call it a little bit harsher.

LUDDEN: That meant consequences if members didn't meet their weight-loss goals.

SCZEPANSKI: For this particular one that comes to mind, their consequence was, they would need to wear their bathing suit in front of the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCZEPANSKI: Interesting.

LUDDEN: That's great.

SCZEPANSKI: Yeah. Yeah.

LUDDEN: So did anyone have to do that?

SCZEPANSKI: No. That was pressure enough, you know, that they were going to stick to the plan.

TERRY MERRITT: Hi, Diane. This is Terry with Dow Chemical...

LUDDEN: Terry Merritt works in purchasing, and she took one of Sczepanski's classes last year.

MERRITT: I was a size 22, almost a 24, and now I'm a size 10.

LUDDEN: Merritt had struggled with weight for decades. She's a lifetime member of Weight Watchers, but says this was just so convenient.

MERRITT: You took your lunch hour. She came to our building. I didn't even have to leave the building. So, I mean it made it so easy to get started.

LUDDEN: Colleagues have been amazed by her transformation, she says, and are coming to her for encouragement and advice. She now counts every calorie, and shows me a drawer full of low-cal snacks.

MERRITT: A hundred calories, 100 calories, 130 - I got to lie, but these are really good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: None of the programs at Dow are mandatory. And unlike at many companies, there's no financial incentive. But Dow's effort to change the culture around health is sweeping.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Your total is 7.57.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

LUDDEN: The cafeteria boasts the usual racks of chips even hot, cheesy pizza. But over at the salad bar, utensils are now color-coded.

SCZEPANSKI: So, you'll see green utensils on those things that are real healthy.

LUDDEN: Broccoli, spinach, beets. Health promotion coordinator Sczepanski says yellow handles mean caution. And red? That's for temptations like bacon bits and high-fat dressing.

SCZEPANSKI: Our message isn't to be food Nazis, but really 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.

LUDDEN: Though there's more diners may not notice, many healthier items are now 10-20 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.

SCZEPANSKI: And we've seen a steady increase in our percent of healthy food sales over the last year.

LUDDEN: Studies suggest wellness programs do pay off. Johnson and 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.

BAASE: Nobody has figured out how to solve this, exactly. And so, we're putting our best effort at it and we are definitely seeing results.

LUDDEN: But Baase cautions 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.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.