While encouraging employees to maintain a healthy weight should be the ultimate goal, diet experts note that any change in the right direction is likely to improve health outcomes for employees and hence productivity, and lower medical costs for employers.
"Some weight loss is likely to be associated with some health improvement; more … with more health improvement. It's a continuous scale of weight and health and dollars," Katz said.
The researchers write that these quantifications should spur increased awareness of economic drawbacks of an overweight and ailing America, but Roslin noted that these types of statistics could also contribute to discrimination against obese employees.
"One sad result is that the study provides ammunition for the discrimination that people with severe obesity deal with," he said. "Yale once published a study that showed that people would rather hire a convicted felon, than a person with severe obesity. Now, let us add the present study and think about the impact it could have on hiring practices. If you add science to discrimination, it will be very difficult for people with morbid obesity to find a job."
Billions in lost productivity should be a wake-up call to employers to help their employees get fit and stay in good health, Roslin said, not a justification for ridding the workplace of obese workers.