Obesity research: Fitness and fatness are huge workplace issues

Obesity is a growing problem. Over the past 10 years, the number of people classified as obese has risen by 50%. At the current rate, 28% of women and 33% of men will be obese by 2010.

The Department of Health said 18 million working days a year are already lost because of obesity-related health problems.

But with shift-work, overtime and other working practices all linked to the problem, employers may be able to play a part in cutting their employees down to size by offering healthy eating options and encouraging them to take exercise.

Research by Personnel Today’s sister publication, IRS Employment Review, shows that more than nine out of 10 employers currently have some sort of catering facility. These range from vending machines to canteens and visits by sandwich sellers.

Occupational health specialists, interviewed by IRS, offered four recommendations to employers:

  • Make healthy foods available in on-site vending machines
  • Subsidise healthy eating options in workplace cafés and canteens
  • Provide nutritional information on packaging of food for staff
  • Offer free fruit for employees.

The research is based on a survey of 173 employers who were distributed throughout the public and private sectors, but larger organisations were in the majority.

It found that canteens, vending machines and other food outlets were more common in large organisations. Employers in manufacturing and public sector bodies were also more likely than private sector service businesses to offer such facilities.

… and employers are in the right place to help workers cut the problem down to size

Four out of 10 employers (40%) contacted by IRS claim they already help employees who want to lose weight. In the public sector, this rises to more than half (54.2%).

Among those organisations offering assistance, the most common approaches are to include healthy eating choices on the menu in the staff canteen (62%), or to provide sub­sidies to employees to join a gym or use other fitness facilities (59%).

Many employers also offer weight-loss and healthy eating advice (55%), low-fat food options in vending machines (29%), talks and videos (12%) or support groups (7%). In the private sector, some companies (7%) also encourage sandwich providers to offer healthy choices.

Among the other types of support offered by employers are access to occupational health services and slimming clubs based in or near workplaces.

All forms of weight management initiatives are less common in smaller organisations and in private sector services companies.

…but the US offers the nightmare alternative

The cost of obesity to employers in the US is more transparent than in the UK because it has an advanced system of employer-funded employee healthcare.

Obesity is estimated to account for 43% of all healthcare spending by US businesses on employees with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a range of other fat-related diseases, according to health coaching consultancy Leade Health.

Key statistics drawn from the US experience show that:

  • obese workers are more than twice as likely to have high levels of absence as other staff
  • the cost of obesity to an employer with 1,000 workers is $285,000 a year, with increased levels of sickness absence accounting for 30% of this and
  • medical costs for obese employees are 77% higher than those for workers with an average body mass index.

But the consultancy said that weight management programmes can help participants lose 10% of their weight on average.

 




 

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