Of Course You Realize . . . This Means War

Those were the famous words of a certain long eared, bushy tailed Warner Bros cartoon character aimed at one Elmer Fudd numerous times. In cartoons, a lot of humor can be found in that phrase. But when it comes to battling the obesity epidemic, particularly in today’s workforce and the ever rising associated health care costs, war has been declared and it is no laughing matter.

According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, overweight employees are slower and less efficient than their less portly colleagues – costing an average of $1800 a year in lost productivity. It is no longer a secret or surprise that obesity in the workplace has negative effects on both work productivity and ultimately, the health care costs to employers. As a result, some of America’s largest and most recognizable corporations have declared war on this epidemic and set an example of how and what is needed to get the job done.

As seen in Businessweek, big corporations such as Google, Caterpillar, Yamaha Corp of America and others are putting health food in their corporate break rooms, cafeterias, and vending machines; dumping donuts in favor of organic fresh fruit deliveries; and slapping “calorie taxes’ on fatty foods. At Yamaha, the “wellness police” as they are affectionately known, are the folks obsessed with bringing down exploding health insurance costs. Their focus had only been confined to targeting chubby cubicle dwellers with subsidized cholesterol drugs, free gym memberships, and health coaches. But none of that was doing any good if all the company’s vending machines are loaded with candy, cola, chips, and cookies and cakes are served at every meeting. ‘I didn’t think we were being aggressive enough”, says Carol Baker, the HR boss at Yamaha.  Simply eliminating food isn’t as easy as it sounds either, for according to Baker, “People aren’t ready to give up everything.”

Google, the company famously committed to doing no evil is not safe from the dangers of boardroom flabbiness either. New employees are prone to suffer what is known as the so-called Google 15 - the number of pounds they say is typically gained after joining the company and partaking in its wealth of available food. Google’s “micro kitchens” as they are known, are snack stations within 200 feet of every worker’s desk and more like mini 7-Elevens.  “We kept adding things and adding things and adding things, says Google’s food service chief John Dickman. The cafeteria had an offering known as the Luther Burger, a bacon and cheese number with Krispy Kreme donuts as a bun!  “There were certain things that they couldn’t live without”, Dickman says. The junk-healthy ration of the “micro-kitchens” is now 50-50, with agave-sweetened beverages, roasted nuts, sulfate-free dried fruit, and platters of organic, crudités.

At Yamaha, Baker has done away with the “zillions” of pies in favor of regular shipments of organic fruit from San Francisco Fruit Guys, whose business is providing workplaces across the U.S. with pesticide-free, locally grown fruit. Ultimately turns out that fruit is cheaper than pies. And for lunch time, despite the proximity of numerous fast food joints, Baker brought in a catering company offering healthy salads and sandwiches. “We’re trying to change people’s behaviors,” she says. She soon found out that employees are not the only resisters. “The vending machine people are not very supportive.” At first she said, “They grudgingly tossed in some trail mix and stuck a little heart sticker next to those orange crackers with peanut butter.  But within weeks, the potato chips and candy bars were back.”

That’s why some companies are getting to employees’ stomachs through their wallets. After Caterpillar offered garden burgers in its cafeteria for a buck, last year’s sales soared five fold to 2500 a month! At mortgage giant Freddie Mac, workers who order six healthy meals in the cafeteria get the 7th free. Florida Power and Light, Dow Corning, and Sprint Nextel all charge more for unhealthy food, or what’s known as a “calorie tax”, and less for healthier fare.  At Pitney Bowes, they moved the dessert away from the cash registers to curb impulse buys. Some companies have even taken the approach of re-educating their employees. Microsoft’s food honcho, Mark Freeman, created a color-coded system of icons to help make the healthy stuff as recognizable as a Snickers bar. In each of Microsoft’s 31 cafeterias, there are icons for vegan, gluten free, organic, sustainable, sugar-free, carb-control, and non-dairy. Freeman has also made the company’s headquarters a trans-fat free zone.  At first, “Everybody was yelling and screaming about the healthy food”, says Freeman. “But they’ve come full circle.”

For those who don’t, there is always tough love. As one executive from a major software company quipped, “We’re waging a war on fat people.” Cubicle dwellers beware. The war is headed to a town near you! (Cartoons characters not included).