Businesses, unions and academics have backed a multi-million pound plan to promote health at work.
Health secretary Alan Johnson announced last week a £372m anti-obesity strategy, Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives, bringing together employers, communities and individuals to tackle the problem.
Nearly one in four adults in England is obese, which could cost the economy an estimated £50bn a year by 2050.
Organisations will be encouraged to act and make healthy workplaces part of their core business model – supporting employees to eat healthier and get fitter. Pilot schemes will be run, exploring how companies can promote wellness among staff, such as building relationships with local gyms.
The new strategy will use the findings of Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of the working age population to make further recommendations, and report progress on a yearly basis.
Richard Neville, head of employee relations at utilities firm Yorkshire Water, told Personnel Today: “It’s extremely realistic that employers should promote health. Health choices are an individual responsibility, but we try to give people the information they need to make that choice – it’s not about nannying them.”
Yorkshire Water has an in-house occupational health (OH) team, which promotes healthy eating, an on-site gym, and an intranet focused on health education.
“There are a variety of things a company can do to address health issues at work, as long as it makes them fun,” Neville added.
Power supplier EDF Energy employs thousands of engineers who cannot easily access OH support. But this is not an excuse to avoid health issues, according to head of HR David Evans.
“Because of the nature of the industry, there is an awful lot we do to promote good health,” he said. “It’s about how you organise yourself as a business. Engineers can visit local OH offices within work hours.”
According to the Royal Institute for Public Health, the government could go further by introducing health champions to advise colleagues on weight.
Heather Davison, standards director at the institute, said: “As we spend most of our waking hours at work, the workplace is an under-used environment for improving a person’s health.”
However, the TUC warned that chronic obesity would not be tackled through workplace initiatives alone.
A spokesman said: “There is a danger that employers will instead stigmatise employees who are a bit overweight, causing stress and weakening workplace morale.”
A Department for Health spokeswoman said: “The government will work closely with employers to look at the difficult issues of shift work and healthier eating.”
Obesity: How bad is it?
25% of adults and one-third of children are obese
90% of adults will be obese by 2050 at the current rate
£50bn estimated cost of obesity to UK economy in 2050
Source: Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives report