Government statistics predict that by 2050, 90 per cent of the UK population will be overweight, or obese.1 Keith Gorman looks at why employers should help tackle obesity, and what simple measures they can put in place to help improve their workers’ health and diet.
The UK has witnessed a rapid rise in the number of people categorised as obese. A recent government study2 revealed that two thirds of adults and one third of children are obese or overweight, and it’s predicted that by 2010, one in four people won’t even be able to fit into a standard office chair.
Spiralling levels of obesity will have major consequences both for the health of individuals and on the productivity of the workplace. Obesity has been identified as a trigger for a range of health problems, such as diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory complaints, cancers, strokes, and infertility.
In addition to causing physical problems, being overweight is recognised to have damaging effects on a person’s mental health, causing problems such as depression and low self-esteem. The cost to the NHS of overweight individuals suffering from such problems is estimated at £4.2 billion — a figure that is predicted to more than double by 2050.3
An issue for employers?
But why should employers help tackle this issue? Well, aside from wider arguments that employers should help create a better society, surveys have shown that obesity costs employers — through factors such as absenteeism, long-term sick pay, and the cost of temporary staff. Former head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, for example, once estimated that obesity accounted for 18 million days of sickness absence in England alone.4
Obesity can also contribute to low staff morale, decreased job satisfaction, and industrial injuries, all of which have a negative impact on the productivity and profitability of the workplace.
A report commissioned recently by a private health consultancy5 supports this reasoning, with workers who are obese reporting significantly less productivity than those who are not. The report also revealed that there is nearly twice as much sickness absence among obese employees compared with those who have normal body-weight profiles.
When you consider that employees can spend up to 60 per cent of their waking hours at work,6 it becomes clear that employers are ideally placed to offer a setting for physical activity and an environment to help change their employees’ attitudes towards healthy eating.
The Government is also supporting employers in their campaign against obesity in the workplace. Last year, it launched a £372m anti-obesity strategy,2 which aims to bring together employers, communities and individuals to tackle obesity. As part of this strategy, the Government expects employers to support employees to eat healthier and get fitter.
Proof of pay-back
There is a massive amount of work that still needs to be done to persuade organisations to change their mindsets on obesity. We need more evidence-based work, specifically around the potential return on investment that employee well-being programmes can generate. However, as the data begins to build up, and finance and HR directors start to realise the true potential cost of obesity, there will undoubtedly be more impetus devoted to integrating wellness programmes into their businesses.
Putting in place such health and well-being strategies can directly impact on the productivity of employees and a company’s bottom line. For example, GlaxoWellcome, part of GlaxoSmithKline, implemented an employee well-being programme at one of its manufacturing sites, which included health screening, physical activities, healthier options in the cafeteria, and access to water coolers placed around the complex.
The results of this campaign included: a 15-per-cent reduction in the consumption of sugary beverages; a 50-per-cent increase in water consumption; and a general improvement in employees’ cholesterol levels and BMI (Body Mass Index). This impacted on the firm in the form of a reduction in annual absenteeism from an average 3.7 days per employee to 1.9 days, which in turn led to a reduction in the company’s medical expenses of 13 per cent.
Every health and well-being programme is specific to the company and the budget available, and firms should seek advice before implementing such a service. Typically, however, the programme will employ measures such as:
- Offering access to healthy foods — employers can improve their staff’s diets by putting measures in place, such as providing free fruit for employees, putting vending machines in the workplace with healthy snacks rather than chocolates, or, where a workplace has a cafeteria, offering a choice of healthy meals.
- Providing the opportunity for staff to exercise. This can be very simple, such as changing the layout of the office to encourage staff to be active — for example, relocating printers so staff have to walk across the office, or up the stairs for print-outs. Employers can also encourage staff to walk or cycle to meetings as a way of getting healthy. For example, Merseytravel provided pool bikes for employees, which had the added benefit of helping the company become more green. Encouraging exercise in the workplace can be taken a step further by giving employees access to exercise classes, or gym equipment on site, or offering subsidised membership of private gyms.
- Raising awareness of diet and exercise — a company can bring about changes in the health of staff simply by making sure employees are aware of the issues surrounding obesity, where help can be found, and what they can do as an individual. Companies can do this by including health information in internal communications, or bringing in experts who can talk to staff about how they can pursue a healthier lifestyle.
Putting such programmes in place will certainly have an impact on the productivity of the workplace, but there is the concern that overweight employees may feel they are being targeted, or isolated by such measures. Employers therefore need to be sensitive in their implementation of such programmes and the way these programmes are communicated to staff.
However, despite the concern that such programmes could raise uncomfortable issues for staff suffering from obesity, the fact remains that this issue has to be tackled, and implementing a well-being programme is a good way to help employers reap the benefits of a happy, healthy and productive workforce.
In the future, it is inevitable that government and businesses will spend more money on these schemes. It’s a small part of the healthy-lifestyle jigsaw but it still makes a big difference, so employers need to start dealing with this today. Some are still sceptical but the evidence doesn’t lie.
1 Speech by the Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Health, 23 July 2008
2 Department of Health (2008): Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: A cross-government strategy for England, see www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/
3 Department of Health, see www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publichealth/Healthimprovement/Obesity/DH_6585
4 National Audit Office (2001), Tackling obesity in England: see www.nao.org.uk/whats_new/0001/0001220.aspx
5 Vielife study, see www.vielife.com/downloads/research/compendium_2009.pdf
6 Peersman G, Harden A and Oliver S (1998): Social characteristics of participants in health promotion effectiveness research: trial and error? in Education for Health 11, pp305-317
7 Vaughan-Jones, H and Barham, L (2009): Healthy Work Challenges and Opportunities to 2030, Bupa, p73 (to view the full report, go to: www.bupa.co.uk/about/html/reports/
8 Business in the Community, see www.bitc.org.uk/workplace/health_and_wellbeing/index.html
Keith Gorman is a workplace health advisor at charity, [email protected]
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