U-M Report: Employee Health Care Costs Tied to Smoking, Obesity, Stress

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Employers pay one out of every four dollars for health care due to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions such as smoking, stress, and obesity, despite most large employers having workplace wellness programs, says a new University of Michigan study.

Michael O’Donnell, an author of the study and the director of the U-M Health Management Research Center at the school of kinesiology, says obesity was the most prevalent and costly condition, followed by stress and the use of mood-altering drugs. Other risks included seatbelt use, exercise, tobacco and alcohol use, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

O’Donnell says the United States has worse health outcomes than other developed nations, despite spending almost twice as much on health care.

“Medical care costs are out of control in the U.S. and also for employers,” O’Donnell says. “This makes it difficult for some businesses to compete globally.”

He says the average cost for a health employee was about $3,000, and $10,000 for an employee with at least one medical condition. Modifiable behaviors and conditions accounted for about $750 for healthy employees, and $2,600 for those with pre-existing health problems.

O’Donnell says employee wellness programs should build awareness about the link between lifestyle and health, and build the skills necessary for employees to change their behaviors.

“Employee wellness programs are a win-win for employers and employees,” O’Donnell says. “If employees improve their lifestyle, they feel better and reduce their chances of getting sick. Costs go down for employers and their employees, or at least costs do not increase as much as they would otherwise.”

The study will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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