Obesity in the workplace – why and how employers need to help staff battle the bulge 

Obesity in the workplace

Obesity in the workplace is a growing challenge for employers. Yet, fat is an understandably tricky topic to tackle.

Weight is so often an issue of self-esteem that there can be real fear of causing offence by discussing it at work. 

It is a topic that many line managers will avoid discussing with staff and not a typical issue around which employers engage in awareness raising.

It can also easily be treated insensitively or as a stigma among work groups, which has no place in a modern, inclusive workplace.    

Why obesity matters for employers 

Unfortunately, the reality is that the working age population is getting fatter every year. Obesity and associated risks affect workers in every workforce.   

The latest Health Survey for England data suggests that 27% of men and 29% of women are now obese. 

There are many causes of obesity – individual biology and psychology inevitably play some role, along with economic factors. However, societal influences and people’s environment are also significant, and this includes their work environment and the influences of colleagues.  

Sitting on the problem 

Work can exacerbate the challenges of weight management for many people, especially those in sedentary roles such as lorry driving, supermarket cashiers, call-centre workers and a raft of office jobs that span every business function.  

The risks of sitting are becoming increasingly clear. Inactivity is clearly linked to overweight and obesity.  

Serious associated impacts 

Obesity is directly responsible for earlier death. One estimate by the McKinsey Global Institute suggested that obesity is the cause of 5% of all deaths worldwide.  

Of more direct issue for employers is that obesity is linked to numerous comorbid conditions. These include Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, many types of cancer, osteoarthritis – as well as emotional and psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.   

Each of these can cause employee health issues, cause repeated or long-term sickness absences, and create ongoing occupational health needs. Studies from multiple countries show that individuals with obesity miss more days of work (absenteeism) than individuals without obesity. They also work at less than full capacity when they are at work (presenteeism)

The pandemic has further highlighted the issue of obesity, as restricted movement and quarantining led many to put on weight. More importantly, there is evidence emerging that obesity can cause more severe COVID symptoms, more prolonged symptoms, or that it may even increase the risk of Long COVID.  

How employers can engage with obesity

It makes good sense for employers to learn about obesity and become motivated to help. Simply talking about the issues and encouraging employees around healthy lifestyles is a way to help.   

World Obesity Day recommends a three-step management approach for employers which is very sound: 

  1. Understand obesity as a disease and a risk factor for other diseases 
  2. Use best-practice to build healthy workplace environments 
  3. Communicate with employees effectively and sensitively on the topic of obesity 

Providing line managers with guidance in dealing with the topic of obesity in the workplace or any associated conditions can enable them to deal with it more sensitively and in an informed way. Employers should take a structured approach to ensure that they are aware of the issues, have reliable information sources, and understand the referral options available. This can, of course, be built into workforce engagement workflows with the aid of Empactis but can also guide good general improvements.  

A wealth of useful obesity information for employers is available from the World Obesity Day website. 

Practical employer actions to battle obesity in the workplace

Employers can help in many practical ways too, such as:   

  • Create weight management initiatives in the workplace, supported by professionals trained in nutrition, exercise and weight management 
  • Investigate and communicate support for weight management within existing corporate healthcare insurance provisions and Employee Assistance Programmes  
  • Direct catering providers to incorporate a higher proportion of healthy options in canteens and on-site vending machines 
  • Encourage exercise – 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week is advised by the NHS  
  • Encourage regular breaks and movement – breaking up long periods of sitting time with activity for just 1-2 minutes is recommended  
  • Sponsor employees who are engaging in fitness and health challenges 
  • Invest in standing desks – these are becoming increasingly popular among office staff 
  • Encourage staff to use stairs instead of lifts 

Why not add health awareness key dates to your calendar? Visit our Employee Health and Wellbeing Calendar now

Helping line managers handle all health topics appropriately and connect health, absence and employee relations workflows is what the Empactis Employee Health Management System was designed for.