The War against Excess Worker Waistage

Companies are taking on employees' ever-widening girths in a quest for lower health-care costs and higher productivity

By Michelle Conlin

Every college student knows the perils of the "freshman 15" -- roughly the number of pounds that the newly matriculated always seem to put on with a regimen of college mess-hall food and booze. Now, every corporate rookie should know about the entry-level 10. The middle-manager 25. And the high-flyer 50.

Moore's law promised a brave new corporation in which the speed of computer chips would double every 18 months. What it didn't mention was that the human part of the theorem -- the concomitant clicking and pointing -- burns only about two calories a day. We duffers on Aeron chairs are a professional paradox: We're more productive but more thick-waisted than ever before. And with obesity rates hitting record highs, the sight of potato-shaped guts and big backyards (read behinds) has become a unifying visual in cubicles and corner suites across Corporate America.

Sure, exceptions abound -- like the headquarters of Vogue publisher Condé Nast, which is filled with waifish fashionistas who sneak smokes in the stairwells. But mostly, you could pretty much chart career trajectories by girth gained.


  The proliferation of country-club workplace campuses -- enclosed little worlds that provide workers with everything they could possibly need within a few steps of their cubicles -- are a big cardio culprit. File cabinets and printer stands transmogrify into day-long dumping grounds for leftover bagels and donuts. Lunch? Delivered. Dry cleaning? Done on site.

Even caffeine breaks have been stripped of their once-ambulatory nature. Instead of jaunting out of the building to visit the local barista, we shuffle 20 steps to the free coffee in the break room that was remodeled during the Bubble to look like the one on the TV sitcom Friends.

Now comes a new concern with all this bulge creep. President George Bush not only blamed the portly Larry Lindsey for many of his Administration's economic woes but according to the Washington Post, he also questioned his aides about why Lindsey doesn't exercise. The ultrafit Bush is a nut on this stuff. He expects his team to be disciplined in mind and body (notice Lindsey successor Stephen Friedman's thin frame?).


  Some embattled CEOs are also finding solace in sveltedom. Citigroup (C ) chief Sanford Weill recently dropped 30 pounds after swearing off bread, dessert, and martinis until the outfit's regulatory problems blow over. Weight has even become a potential bar to promotion. During GE's successor race, former CEO Jack Welch encouraged Jeff Immelt to trim down. He did.

Are corporate anti-obesity campaigns fast becoming the successors to the antismoking crusades? The evidence is mounting. Obesity cost U.S. employers some $117 billion in lost productivity in 2000, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Corporations such as General Motors (GM ), HBO (AOL ), and Caterpillar (CAT ) have all launched wellness programs to boost productivity and slash medical expenses.

Motorola (MOT ) reimburses health-club dues. Merrill Lynch (MER ) chips in for employees who join Weight Watchers, and meetings are held on-site. And at Microsoft (MSFT ), obese employees can sign up for a program that offers behavioral therapy, nutritional counseling, and personal training. The company picks up 80% of the tab.


  Other businesses are going so far as to design offices that give cube-dwellers no choice but to get off their butts. In many of its recent projects, Princeton (N.J.)-based Hillier, one of the country's largest architecture firms, has created environments that inspire motion instead of vegetation.

Hillier's work at Sprint's (FON ) new world headquarters in Overland, Kan., involved building parking garages a five-minute walk from headquarters instead of the usual 150 feet. Employees can park their car and then stroll through a series of outdoor quadrangles filled with flowers and fountains. The university-like greens help employees do "exercise lite," according to Phil Dordai, a principal in the corporate practice group. "Our objective is to really reverse the paradigm of the traditional office park, which is really designed around the car. Instead, we try to design the office around the pedestrian."

Hillier's renovation of a management consulting firm's offices in Philadelphia's historic Wanamaker Building entailed opening up the fire stairs linking two floors, where the architects discovered 10-foot-wide stairways with Carrara marble steps and the original, 1912 iron railings. The addition of loaned artwork from the Philadelphia Art Museum caused employees to flock to the stairs instead of the elevator as they traveled back and forth on what soon became a kind of a slow-motion Stairmaster.


  As you might expect, employee-advocacy groups worry that the new shimmy toward skinny could invite more discrimination into the workplace. One recent Cornell University study showed that heavier women bring home smaller paychecks, with overweight white women getting docked the most. The study, involving 2,843 women over a 12-year period, showed that those who weighed 65 pounds more than co-workers earned an average of 7% less. So far, California is the only state to prohibit discrimination on the basis of someone's clothes size.

But while some of the antiflab campaign is prejudicial stereotyping, proof abounds that fit workers are more productive. And they cost less in medical coverage -- a big concern to employers staring at double-digit health increases. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ) recently conducted a nine-year study of its wellness program that found it saved an annual $225 per employee in reduced hospital admissions, mental-health visits, and outpatient services.

Even if your employer isn't willing to shell out bucks for shucking pounds, the government is stepping in. In April, the IRS put out new rules that allow workers to use pretax funds from flexible spending accounts for weight-loss expenses that are deemed "medically necessary." Those who qualify can also deduct diet-plan fees that aren't covered by insurance. Special food and fitness clubs aren't eligible.

You can blame your job for a lot of things. But your list is getting lighter now that weight gain is in the corporate crosshairs.

Conlin covers workplace issues for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.