The Heavy Cost of Obesity At Work

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

OK, in the interest of full disclosure I’ve had enough to eat since the beginning of the year to go into hibernation. So I’m entitled a bit to comment on the growing issue of the cost to organizations of leaders and employees who are overweight.

I also have to disclose that I’m married to a registered dietitian who tells me everyday that there are really are no bad foods–only poor diets. At least I still maintain my morning ritual of taking all my inflammatory protective vitamins with Yoohoo and heading out for my morning run at the beach. At long last it seems, CFOs are now my friend when I talk about the cost of poor health habits to the corporate financial waist line.

Here are some things we know about the cost of overweight leaders and talent on absenteeism, presenteeism (being at work but not really being there mentally or physically), disability claims, and health costs:

1. Approximately 44 million American adults (27.6% of men and 33.2% of women) were considered obese in 2005, defined as having a body-mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Baskin ML, Ard J, Franklin F, Allison DB.(2005). Prevalence of obesity in the United States. Obesity Rev. 2005 6, 5-7).

2. The average talent only stays at a job for about 4.5 years, and it actually takes quite a bit longer for health problems due to being overweight to really emerge.

3. Obesity costs U.S. companies more than $13 billion annually in health care costs and is associated with 39 million days lost due to absenteeism, according to the National Business Group on Health (National Business Group on Health

4. Obesity-related claims for short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) indicates a growing health cost to employers. For example, most of the STD and LTD claims submitted to insurance companies in 2005 were directly due to obesity (e.g., gastric bypass procedures) and they were more than double those submitted in 2003.

5. Individuals who are overweight and obese are at much higher risk of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Annual medical expenditures are $732 higher, on average for overweight adults than for those with average or below average BMI, according to a recent study published in Health Affairs.

6. Obesity is estimated to account for 43% of all health care spending by US businesses on employees with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a range of other fat-related diseases, according to health coaching consultancy Leade Health Inc.

7. Obesity is a greater contributor to chronic health problems and medical spending (30% to 50% higher) compared to either smoking or drinking (Roland Sturm, UCLA/RAND Managed Care Center for Psychiatric Disorders, The Effects of Obesity, Smoking and Drinking on Medical Problems and Costs, Health Affairs, March/April 2002).

8. A recent Duke University study analyzing 11,728 employees over eight years found that overweight workers had 2 times the rate of workers’ compensation claims as their more fit co-workers. The most overweight workers had 13 times more sick days and work-related injuries (Østbye, T, Dement, J. & Krause, K. (2007). Obesity and Workers’ Compensation: Results From the Duke Health and Safety Surveillance System . Archives of Internal Medicine. 167, 766-773).

9. The U. S. 6th District Court determined recently that morbid obesity is generally not a disability for employees and can’t be used as a claim for “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disability act (ADA). This judgment came from a suit from 400-pound Stephen Grindle who claimed he was fired as a driver for Watkins Motor Lines because of his weight.

10. A recent meta-analysis by a group of researchers at John Hopkins University suggest that if the rate of obesity and overweight continues at the current pace, by 2015, 75 percent of adults and nearly 24 percent of U.S. children and adolescents will be overweight or obese.

At least in the retail industry, it seems “shrinkage” these days is on an increase….Be well….

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Do You Have the Entrepreneurial Gene?

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Why do People become Entrepreneurs?

It appears that it might actually be in your genes.

It is already well established that there is substantial heritability for the “Big Five” personality factors (Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness) with approximately 50% of the variance accounted for by genetic factors (Shane et al., 2010).

Genetic factors also seem to account for a significant proportion of variance in who becomes an entrepreneur and personality might actually be one of the many factors through which genetics might exert their influence (of course, there may be others and even some more important such as hormones, activity levels etc.). How can such a claim be made? Research with twins allows for the examination of “nature” versus “nurture” factors to be teased out.

In a new study of 3,412 twins from the UK and 1,300 twins from the US, researchers examined whether genetic factors were associated with the “Big Five” personality characteristics ) and the tendency to become an entrepreneur (defined as self-employed, starting a new business, being an owner, or engaging in a start-up process). The researchers found that common genes influenced the correlations between only two personality factors and the tendency to become an entrepreneur (Shane, S. et al. (2010). Genetics, the Big Five and the tendency to be self-employed. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6, 1154-1162). These included:

1. Openness to Experience
2. Extraversion

These findings are interesting in light of earlier meta-analytic research findings exploring personality and entrepreneurial intentions (includes individuals who have not yet started a venture) that found correlations of .16 between Extroversion and intentions, .09 between Extroversion and performance, .24 between Openness to Experience and intentions and .21 between Openness to Experience and performance (Zhao, H. et al. (2010). The relationship of personality to entrepreneurial intentions and performance: A meta analytics review. Journal of Management, 36, 381-404). These significant associations, although modest, do support the relationship between having high energy and being outgoing (Extroversion) and risk taking (Openness to Experience) and entrepreneurial interests as well as performance.

Earlier research by Hao Zhao of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Scott E. Seibert of the Melbourne Business School analyzed and combined the results of twenty-three independent research studies (Zhao, J. & Siebert, S. (2006). The Big Five personality dimensions and entrepreneurial status: A meta-analytical review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 259-271). The twenty-three studies included in the meta-analysis compared entrepreneurs to a group of managers on the five factor personality (FFM) traits. Statistical differences between entrepreneurs and managers were found on four out of the five personality traits. Entrepreneurs scored significantly higher than managers on the scales of Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness.

In general, entrepreneurs can be characterized as more creative, more innovative, and more likely to embrace new ideas than their manager counterparts (Openness to Experience). Second, the results indicated that entrepreneurs were higher than managers on Conscientiousness (i.e., drive and work ethic). Further analysis indicated that the differences were due to the entrepreneurs having a higher achievement orientation as compared to managers. Entrepreneurs and managers did not differ on other aspects of the Conscientiousness factor such as dependability, reliability, planning and organizational skills.

The second key set of results showed entrepreneurs to be significantly lower than managers on Neuroticism and Agreeableness. In general, entrepreneurs appear to be more self-confident, resilient, and stress-tolerant than non-entrepreneurial managers. These results are logical given the highly stressful, demanding, and changing work environments which entrepreneurs usually find themselves. Entrepreneurs are able to tolerate a greater amount of stress without anxiety, tension and psychological distress. This may help entrepreneurs handle ambiguity, take risks and feel greater comfort with failure.

With regard to lower scores on Agreeableness, entrepreneurs were found to be tougher, more demanding, and more likely to use more negotiation and influence skills than managers. Finally, no significant differences were found between the two groups on Extroversion in this earlier analysis but it still appears to genetically be associated with the selection of entrepreneurial careers.

People become entrepreneurs in part because of the “fit” of their genetically influenced personalities to the job of running their own businesses. On the other hand, a careful reading of the current research suggests that the Big Five personality factors have only a modest effect on the tendency to become an entrepreneur.

From a teaching and coaching perspective, helping students and talent develop interpersonal competence and skills associated with Extroversion might actually have a greater impact on entrepreneurial success than trying to increase Openness to Experience. Why? The association between Extroversion and the tendency to become an entrepreneur appears to depend less on genetic factors than does the association between Openness to Experience and the tendency to become an entrepreneur.

I’m neither very extroverted or extremely high in risk taking and sensation seeking but I sure love being my own boss….I wonder what the researchers would say about that….Be well….


Social Support of Bosses and Health

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


Being a leader can be a lonely place. The higher you go in an organization the least likely you are to have colleagues and reports provide you with honest and candid feedback about your behavior. How many of us of heard the refrain, “another great meeting Lou” only to wander out the door muttering to ourselves just how much a waste a time the meeting actually was.

Leaders also seem to be high in self-delusion(no research has looked at how many leaders still have “imaginary friends”). In a recent study reported in Harvard Business Review, CEOs seem to have unrealistically optimistic perceptions about several aspects of their top team’s performance. In this study, CEOs reported providing significantly higher effective direction for their team or believed that team members are less interested in promoting themselves than caring more about team interests than their direct reports (Rosen, R. & Adair, F. (2007). CEOs Misperceive Top Team’s Performance. Harvard Business Review, September 2007).

What exactly do relationships at work do for talent? Do close relationships with one’s boss and colleagues have any impact on engagement and productivity? Current research suggest strong relationships with one’s boss and direct reports are associated with:

  1. Less inflammation measured as C-Reactive Protein (Suarez, E. (2004). C Reactive Protein Is Associated With Psychological Risk Factors of Cardiovascular Disease in Apparently Healthy Adults. Psychosomatic Medicine 66:684-690).
  2. Enhanced immunity (Schwartz, G.E., Schwartz, J.I., Nowack, K.M., & Eichling, P.S. (1992). Changes in perceived stress and social support over time are related to changes in immune function. University of Arizona and Canyon Ranch. Unpublished manuscript).
  3. Less burnout in professional working women–lower depersonalization and higher personal accomplishment (Nowack, K. and Pentkowski, A. (1994). Lifestyle habits, substance use, and predictors of job burnout in professional working women. Work and Stress, 8, 19-35).
  4. Increased depression(Stroetzer, U. et al. (2006). Problematic interpersonal relationships at work and depression: A Swedish prospective cohort study. Journal of Occupational Health, 51, 144-151).
  5. Enhanced job satisfaction (Simon, L., Judge, T., & Halvorsen-Ganepola, M. (2010). In good company? A multi-level investigation of the effects of coworker relationships on well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 534-546).
  6. Greater longevity and less illness during our life based on meta-analytics reviews of over 148 studies (Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316).

In fact a recent survey of over 15,670 employees in diverse industries by Career Systems International, the third most important retention driver was having strong relationships and working with great people (42%). Only having stimulating/exciting work (48%) and having an opportunity to grow and develop (42.9%) were rated higher.

Despite the challenges and problems in both conceptualizing social support, social integration and networking by researchers and practitioners, having people in our lives to use for emotional, functional and intellectual support appears to be a protective factor in health and one that simultaneously contributes to increase productivity.

We took a look at some social support research results from our stress and health risk assessment called StressScan by analyzing availability, utility and satisfaction of social support by gender. We tested gender differences by using a statistical test called analysis of variance (ANOVA) and found some interesting differences in gender with a sample of almost 800 professional working men and women.

  1. In general, women reported greater availability and use of their social support network (supervisor/boss, colleagues/co-workers, partner, family and friends) then their male counterparts (all p’s < .01).
  2. Women reported using their boss or supervisor significantly more frequently then men which was surprising as research suggests that more successful women indicate that mentoring was less important to their career advancement than did less successful women.
  3. Women reported significantly more availability, use and satisfaction with their friends compared to males. They also reported greater availability and use of their partners, families and friends (all p’s < .01) which is consistent to what Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. has suggested as part of the female “tend and befriend” response to coping with work and life stress (Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Behavioral Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychological Review, 107(3):41-429).

In our statistical analysis of social support for professional men and women we were able to determine the relative amount of dissatisfaction with specific sources of social support. Men and women (N= 785) rated they were either “Not at All” or only “Slightly” satisfied with the following sources to meet their emotional and instrumental support needs:

  • Boss/Supervisor 31.0%
  • Colleagues/Co-Workers 16.8%
  • Family 13.0%
  • Partners/Significant Others 9.9%
  • Friends 8.3%

Having a strong social support network and being satisfied appears to be associated with the level of stress and well-being. Men and women in our sample who reported greater overall social support also reported significantly stronger correlations with:

  • Lower Stress ( r= .35, p < .01)
  • Greater Resilience/Hardiness (r= .47, p < .01)
  • Greater Happiness (r= .58, p < .01)

Maybe the Youngbloods were right after all….”C’mon people now, Smile on your brother, Ev’rybody get together, Try and love one another right now, Right now…” Right now! Be well……