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People know that obesity can have devastating individual consequences. According to NHS estimates, the U.K. spends £5 billion treating obesity and its complications. Also, both in the U.K. and in other parts of the developed world, those complications have crept into the workplace. According to recent statistics from the U.S., absenteeism resulting from obesity costs businesses in that country $8.65 billion every year.

Obesity in the workplace

Many employers avoid acting, fearing that if they address obesity, workers will complain that their employers unfairly target people who are overweight. However, because obesity costs companies a lot of money, employers have to find a balanced, considerate way to address this issue. Currently, only 29 percent of employers offer advice to employees about healthy eating.

Obesity and Work Accidents

Research has shown that overweight or obese workers are more likely to injure themselves. Twenty-six percent of obese males report personal injuries compared to only 17 percent of men who have a typical body weight, and 21.7 percent of obese females report injuries compared to just 12 percent of women in a normal weight range. Some of the most common injuries include:

  • Acute overexertion caused one-third of reported injuries among people who were obese. It can occur while performing heavy lifting or while turning to pick up an object in an awkward position. Over time, acute overexertion can turn lead to disabilities like chronic pain and arthritis.
  • Falls account for nearly 30 percent of personal injuries suffered by obese people. Falls can result in trauma injuries, broken bones, strains and sprains, and other serious problems.
  • Lower extremity injuries. People who are obese are more likely to suffer injuries to their lower extremities, including hip, ankle, and knee joint injuries.

Some injured workers partner with their employers. Others go directly to no win no fee personal injury specialists, like those who work for Claims Direct (http://www.claimsdirect.co.uk/). Either way, employers find themselves facing costly workers’ compensation cases and having to cope with extended employee absences. The financial costs, both for treatment and absenteeism, begin to add up.

Starting a Conversation

The most effective way to approach weight problem in the workplace, according to Beate O’Neill, head of wellness consulting for Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting, is to include healthy eating and exercise as part of an overall workplace wellness initiative. Some ideas for threading together wellness and work include:

  • Exercise initiatives. Make it easier for employers to cycle to work by offering safe places for bike parking. Also, ask local gyms to offer discounted memberships to employees.
  • Encourage people to take a full lunch break. Too many employees sit at their desks and work through lunch. Encourage workers to take a full break, and offer opportunities for walking or yoga sessions during the lunch hour.
  • Many employees enjoy using pedometers, whether they use separate devices or smartphone apps, to encourage themselves to take more steps every day. Encourage employees to take 10,000 steps every day, and find a way to create some friendly competition to see who can walk the most steps in a week.
  • “Biggest Loser” challenges. Some employees enjoy challenging each other to lose weight within a concentrated period of time. For example, workers can pay $50 to enter a weight loss contest, and the top three “losers,” or those who lose the largest percentage of their body weight in six weeks, gets to keep some of the money. Just make sure to have some professionals on-hand, or partner with a reputable weight loss organization like Weight Watchers, to ensure that employees are using healthy measures to drop the weight. Also, use the time to offer seminars on healthy eating, introduce unique kinds of exercise, present weight monitoring app options, and deliver other helpful information.

A Holistic View of Wellness

Even though the company’s goal is to manage obesity, wellness encompasses more than just diet and exercise. Employees might also appreciate tips on getting more sleep, learning how to meditate, lifting properly in the workplace, and other health and wellness challenges. Also, companies can improve both individual and community wellness by inviting employees to participate in a walk-a-thon or race that benefits a local charity.

Companies that prioritize employee wellness can improve retention and cut costs associated with absenteeism. Better yet, they help themselves, their employees, and the economy as a whole.

By Tanya Oliver