We have a problem in this country. It’s been lingering for some time, and
we’ve turned a blind eye to it. The facts are stark and can no longer be
ignored: there has been a 400 per cent increase in the number of obese people
in the UK in the past 25 years. If we don’t step in and do something about it,
we will pass the problem on to generations to come.
These types of issues were not considered to be any business of the employer
– until now, when we’ve only just begun to calculate the true cost of an
unhealthy workforce. Premiums on company medical insurance have risen by 15 per
cent over the past year. Yet statistics showing how much obesity is costing UK
employers are sparse. We need to build a more comprehensive picture of just how
bad the problem is, and to do that, we need to look at the US (see page 12).
Experts there estimate the total cost of obesity to US companies is £7bn per
annum. Two-thirds of the population in the States are considered overweight and
40 million are obese. Companies admit weight, unlike smoking, is still a touchy
subject, and although initiatives are in their infancy, still the US is ahead
of us in terms of measuring weight and wellbeing versus productivity.
We need to catch up – and fast. We need government help and strong
leadership in countering this problem as a society. But in the workplace,
employers need to take responsibility, too. This is HR’s chance to make a real
and immediate impact. It needs to work hand in glove with occupational health
departments in the war against weight. Their first step in convincing the board
this is a vital issue to be tackled head-on must be to gather information and
evidence of the problem.
Together with occupational health, HR needs to drive health assessments of
staff and analyse health insurance claims. It needs to communicate to workers
the health risks associated with excess weight, the effects on productivity and
the impact all the way to the bottom line. It needs to empower staff and make
it easy for them to help beat weight problems themselves. It needs to unleash
imagination and launch more initiatives, like the ones we witness in Microsoft
and the Met. This is an area where HR can and needs to make a real difference.
By Penny Wilson, deputy editor