Occupational health professionals need to be proactive and work closely with vocational rehabilitation specialists, employers and employees to support workers living with obesity to remain in work, a report has argued.
The research document ‘Healthcare professionals, obesity and employment’ by the workplace think-tank the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has been developed to help healthcare professionals discuss employment issues with people living with obesity.
The guide is part of IES’ ‘Purpose’ programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment) which is focusing on ways in which workplaces and the wider labour market can be improved for people living with overweight and obesity.
The report, which was published to coincide with World Obesity Day today (Friday 4 March), details the nature and prevalence of obesity stigma among healthcare professionals and outlines why it is important employment is discussed in healthcare settings.
Alongside this, it addresses some of the challenges healthcare professionals may face when talking to people living with obesity about work.
When it comes to occupational health, the guide recommends that practitioners should “work closely alongside both organisations and employees living with obesity to design and implement relevant workplace support programmes and workplace adjustments to help employees living and working with obesity safely return to, and/or remain in the workplace.”
Healthcare professionals, including OH, have an important and active role in the prevention and treatment of obesity, it argues.
Obesity and the workplace
“Although there is evidence highlighting the role that ‘good work’ can have for an individual’s psychosocial health, there is also evidence to suggest that someone’s experience at work can have implications for their overweight and obesity,” the guide says.
“This suggests that it is important to gain an understanding of a person’s work and their work history to gain a wider perspective of the role of work in their lifestyle and whether returning to work or remaining at work is a goal for them. There is also an important role for occupational health to understand what issues may arise at work and to aid organisations in the design of any workplace health promotion programmes or interventions,” it adds.
The reports also highlights links between obesity and work factors such as shift work, long hours, sedentary behaviour, stress and social interaction.
It considers the impact obesity can have in terms of discrimination, for example around recruitment, progression, workplace relationships, wellbeing and an obesity ‘wage penalty’, especially among women.
Yet, at the same time (and citing a Public Health England report from 2019) it highlights that most healthcare professionals do not engage in work-based conversations with their patients, with GPs, in particular, often feeling inadequately informed or knowledgeable to offer occupational advice to their patients.
“The provision of training about how to discuss and understand work issues among healthcare professionals is limited, as there is the assumption that occupational health would cover such conversations,” the report highlights.
What this all showed, argued lead author Dr Zofia Bajorek, is that healthcare professionals have “an active role” to play in both the prevention and treatment of obesity.
“It is especially important that healthcare settings and those who work in them do not reinforce stigma towards those living with obesity and help and encourage people living with obesity to have the best chance to live fulfilling lives,” she said.
“This includes considering, where appropriate, work as a health outcome; identifying where job retention or returning to work is good for those whose obesity (and any related health conditions) are causing long-term sickness absence or work-related impairments and referring patients to specialist teams (where available) for early intervention and management,” Dr Bajorek added.