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September 22, 2015

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Bariatrics under the radar, but not for long: obesity and the workplace

What is bariatrics?

To put it simply, it’s the branch of medicine that deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

According to recent NHS statistics, around one in four adults in the UK is obese and this figure is only set to increase in the coming years.

The UK is the second-most obese nation in the developed world and while obesity is not an occupational disease as such, oversized dimensions of all parts of the body can obstruct safe postures recommended for DSE work and place individuals in ergonomically unsound, high-risk and uncomfortable positions, which poses a significant challenge for occupational health professionals.

Surprisingly, despite a large percentage of the UK’s workforce being classed as obese, approaches to obesity in the workplace are limited to the healthcare sector and emergency services, where staff are trained on the safe handling of obese patients and members of the public.

In June of this year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidance for employers on how to promote a happy and healthy workforce, which included considerations for mental health, but not for physical wellbeing.

This is surprising, given that ‘wellbeing’ has become such a trendy word in the world of occupational health – we’ve all seen the spread of workplace wellness programmes, which commonly include subsidised gym memberships, healthy options in the staff canteen and lunchtime yoga lessons. It goes without saying that preventing obesity is far better than curing it, however, it seems that already obese employees have been overlooked completely, both by employers and regulatory bodies.

Why is this?

Employers prefer to shy away from the issue of obesity, fearing that they may be seen as discriminatory or too invasive in their employees’ personal lives. It doesn’t help that in the UK this is a legal grey area and companies lack guidance from above, but it may be prudent for employers to look to the US, where there is a legal framework already in place. Recent landmark legal cases at the EU level show that it’s not long until this becomes a very real issue for British businesses.

Obese employees have specific requirements in the workplace, which take into account co-morbidities (both physical and mental) of obesity and which may reflect adaptations to the tasks that they do and the tools and equipment needed to undertake them. It’s widely accepted that employees who feel valued, comfortable and supported in the workplace will be happier and more productive, so it’s in employers’ direct interests to enable this, through specially-designed risk assessments, to highlight individual need.

Aside from the healthcare sector and emergency services, as previously mentioned, it seems that workplace ergonomics has not quite caught up with bariatrics. Obesity is not “one size fits all” and there are a range of different obese body shapes, each with their own individual solutions in an office or workplace setting. While we are all familiar with office chairs designed for heavier users, specially-designed desks and other furniture is harder to find. Carrying out a bariatric task or workstation assessment will identify exactly what tangible and intangible changes are needed.

A tactful and discreet approach will make all the difference when identifying what an obese employee needs. It’s important to assess their specific requirements without making them feel as though they are being targeted or singled out from their colleagues.

This may require additional training for Facilities or HR Managers, to ensure that this process goes as smoothly as possible. It’s only a matter of time before bariatrics becomes a hot topic in occupational health, so it’s a smart move to be ahead of the game.
COSAFE LIMITED is a London-based health and safety consultancy that specialises in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). We work across the UK and in parts of Europe, too. We are leading in the field of workplace ergonomics linked to bariatrics and offer services including in-depth bariatric worker DSE workstation assessments and DSE assessor training specifically for bariatric requirements. Please get in touch at [email protected] and we’d be delighted to discuss this further with you.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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