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Obesity in the workplace – time for action!

The direct health impacts of obesity are widely recognised. Being overweight or obese is associated with a higher likelihood of suffering numerous chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, joint disorders and certain types of cancer. Poor physical health also increases the risk of people developing mental health problems, and employers can expect that, at any one time, nearly one in six of their workforce is affected by a mental health issue.
eating disorders

The toll of long hours, lengthy commutes, sedentary jobs, lack of healthy lunch options and day-to-day stress can unfortunately all have an impact on our physical and mental health – and especially our weight. Article from Joanne Allen, Business Development Manager – Slimming World

“Health-promoting workplaces are obviously good for millions of employees and ultimately for taxpayers too, so the time is right for all employers – including the NHS – to raise our game.” – Simon Stevens, NHS England Chief Executive. We spend up to 60 percent of our total waking hours at work each day [1], so it stands to reason that the working environment can have a big impact on our health and wellbeing. Whether it’s snacking on high-fat and high-sugar foods brought in by colleagues, spending most of the day sitting down at a desk or on the road, the temptation of unhealthy lunch choices nearby or long commutes making it difficult to find time to exercise, maintaining a healthy weight can be a challenge for even the most health-conscious employees. In fact, keeping a healthy weight is a challenge for two in three people in the UK, with 66% of adults now classed as overweight or obese.

The direct health impacts of obesity are widely recognised. Being overweight or obese is associated with a higher likelihood of suffering numerous chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, joint disorders and certain types of cancer. Poor physical health also increases the risk of people developing mental health problems, and employers can expect that, at any one time, nearly one in six of their workforce is affected by a mental health issue.

Impact of weight issues on employees
Obesity costs England 18 million sick days and 30,000 deaths every year. Numerous studies have found that workers who struggle with their weight take more days absence per year, tend to be less productive, are more likely to get injured and often need longer rest breaks than employees of a healthy weight. The really important thing to remember too is that it isn’t their fault. We live in a world where making an unhealthy choice is far easier than making a healthy one, and weight worries often go hand in hand with an emotional burden of guilt self-criticism and low self-esteem than can lead to many of us turning to food for comfort.

Poor mental health also has a direct impact on businesses. Stressors in the workplace can be a contributory factor to a range of physical illnesses like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. In the UK, it is estimated that around 30–40% of sickness absence is attributable to some form of mental illness. Helping people to lead a healthier lifestyle and manage their weight effectively can improve their mental health and wellbeing.

How investing in helping staff to manage weight benefits business
Healthy and fit staff are essential to ensuring that a company remains efficient and profitable. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says promoting a culture that improves the health and wellbeing of employees is good management and leads to productive workplaces. In fact, employees in good health have been found to be three times more productive than those in poor health.

Commitment to employee health can also pay off in unexpected ways. People who successfully lose weight often gain a huge boost in self-esteem. They often become happier and more confident, which can make them more effective at work and improve their relationships with their colleagues too. People increasingly want to work for an employer that offers a positive and supportive culture, with extra benefits that go above and beyond. Providing a healthy workplace can help attract talented employees.

How can employers help people to manage their weight?
It’s possible to take easy and effective actions to promote a healthy weight environment in your place of work, and it’s undoubtedly an investment worth making in the long-term. Here are some ways that employers can support employees to lose weight and make healthier choices.

Raise awareness – Not everyone is aware of the health risks of being overweight, how the working environment could be affecting their weight or even whether they are overweight themselves. Holding awareness sessions for staff and closely evaluating the work environment will go a long way. You could also offer annual BMI and blood pressure checks and make staff aware of current Public Health England campaigns and initiatives.

Offer healthy food and drink options – Ask yourself – is the healthy food choice an easy choice in your workplace? A simple move could be providing fruit instead of biscuits in meetings or in break areas. If you have a staff restaurant or vending machine, are healthier options positioned favourably? If your employees benefit from an on-site restaurant, do you offer healthy choices? With a few simple changes, it’s possible to produce healthy and delicious versions of most meals from chilli and rice, to a jacket potato and tuna, to a roast dinner. If you offer sandwiches could they come with free fruit or a salad? What do you have by the till?

Set up fitness options that suit everyone – Simply moving more can be hugely beneficial to weight loss and healthy weight maintenance. Green travel options like walking or the Government’s Cycle2Work scheme can support staff to start the day with activity, while encouraging regular breaks and even walking meetings can really help to reduce the time staff spend sitting down once they arrive at work. Some office buildings have a gym facility on-site, so encourage your employees to use it regularly if your building has this amenity. If not, could it be possible to approach a local gym with the aim of securing a group discount for your employees as a staff benefit? Although it is the changes we make to what we eat and drink that provides weight loss, combined with exercise, the results are even more powerful.

Encourage employees to reduce stress. Stress, depression and anxiety are reported as the most common reasons for staff absence – however, a lot of the mental health absence that is work related could be prevented. Encouraging things like short breaks throughout the day, flexible working hours and a good work-life balance will all help to increase the mental wellbeing of your staff. A positive work culture helps too of course, while adopting healthier eating and activity habits, and losing weight, have all been found to help people reduce stress.

Be compassionate rather than discriminative – Previous research by Slimming World has found that one in five slimmers believe they have been ignored or discounted in the workplace because of their weight. Lots of studies have shown that this kind of treatment can make weight issues worse by heightening feelings of guilt and shame, which can often lead to people feeling that they don’t have what it takes to make healthy lifestyle changes. Respect and compassion on the other hand have been found to boost feelings of self-worth, making people more open to the possibility of making long-term changes to their behaviour.

Provide access to group-based weight management programmes – The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recognises weight loss organisations like Slimming World as being an effective and healthy way for people to lose weight. Their national guidance welcomes approaches based on healthy eating, getting more active and behaviour change support that have a strong evidence base. Slimming World’s workplace referral scheme has been used by a range of organisations including Public Health England, Royal Mail, Jaguar, npower and West Midlands Ambulance Service and slimmers who engage in the programme typically lose around 5% of their starting weight in 12 weeks.

Offer more – It’s not just about taking care of people between the hours of 9-5, but providing opportunities for them to make real healthy lifestyle changes for life. Point to official guidance that staff can access in their own time, such as the Change4Life website. Signposting to free tips and support on eating well can give staff the option to research how to improve their health and the health of their families too outside of work.

Case study
This January Thames Water decided to seek support to help their employees improve their health after annual medical assessments showed that more than 60% of their staff had an overweight BMI. By June, 200 of its staff had lost a collective 3,000lbs. The average weight loss per person over their initial 12-week programme was more than 14lbs.

Karl Simons, head of health, safety, security and wellbeing at Thames Water has been thrilled to watch the scheme unfold: “At an average rate of 14lbs per person, that makes Thames Water 3 tonnes lighter – simply unbelievable! Of course it’s not just about weight loss. Many of our slimmers have shared their personal stories with me and I’ve loved hearing about the resulting improvements in their general health, self-esteem and how they’ve also influenced the health and wellbeing of their friends and family in the process.”

In the wake of slow economic growth, low-waged workers face massive challenges to earn enough to ensure a decent standard of living. The report by the Social Mobility Commission suggests that a lot still needs to be done to address the issue of falling wages. Although unemployment levels may be low, a quarter of workers are permanently trapped in poorly paid jobs. Many of these workers face disadvantages when they first enter the workforce and are very often subjected to a lifetime of unfair employment conditions. This could be due to the structural characteristics of the labour market where people with higher education, skills and social capital enjoy better employment conditions whereas those without find it difficult to break free from a cycle of uncertainty, low pay and limited prospects of social advancement. As a result there are many within the workforce who struggle to meet living and dependent care expenses and may fall into debt.

[1]

Batt ME: Physical activity interventions in the workplace: the rationale and future direction for workplace wellness. Br J Sports Med. 2009, 43: 47-48. 10.1136/bjsm.2008.053488

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