How to manage obesity in the workplace

Scientists in the US are currently campaigning to raise awareness about the health risks associated with fruit juices and smoothies because of the fruit juice concentrate many contain.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Obesity is a highly sensitive topic for employers to address.
  • Obesity can lead to a range of illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
  • Promotion of healthy eating and physical exercise can help employees to manage their weight.

Obesity researchers Professor Barry Popkin and Professor George Bray argue that fruit juice and smoothies containing this concentrate can increase the risk of diabetes and weight gain, and are calling on governments around the world to raise awareness of these dangers.

The researchers’ claim will doubtless be unwelcome news for time-poor employees who have been using fruit juices and smoothies to achieve their five-a-day intake of fruit and vegetables, which the UK government believes is essential for ensuring a balanced diet and, therefore, a healthy weight.

But the research is likely to be most unwelcome for staff who are struggling to manage their weight, for whom nutrition is a minefield through which they have to battle each day.

Oliver Gray, managing director at health and wellbeing services provider EnergiseYou, says: “There are all these problems around nutrition, and poor education is a really big one. It is amazing how much people are mis-educated about what good nutrition is. A lot of foods are marked as healthy that aren’t.

“For example, people think a jacket potato is a healthy option for lunch when it’s one of the worst things they can have for lunch in terms of their energy levels. Then there are lots of breakfast cereals, cereal bars and ready meals that are all promoted as healthy options, but which often contain a lot of sugar or salt or saturated fat.”

This combination of confusing nutritional advice and sedentary lifestyles is putting the UK at risk of an obesity epidemic.

Between 1993 and 2011, the proportion of adults that were overweight, including obese, rose from 58% to 65% in men and from 49% to 58% in women, according to Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet, England, 2013, published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, Lifestyles Statistics in May.

The figures also show a marked increase in the proportion of adults that were obese, from 13% to 24% in men, and from 16% to 26% in women, over the same period.

Obesity-related illnesses

Obesity can result in a wide range of illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and mental health problems as people struggle with self-esteem and identity issues. These illnesses can affect employees’ productivity and often cause sustained periods of sickness absence.

But there are many low-cost ways for employers to help staff manage their weight. Basic support can include providing healthy-eating options in workplace canteens and vending machines.

Also useful are health screening or check-ups with in-house occupational health teams to check, for example, employees’ blood pressure and body mass index (BMI).

Employers could also consider running or supporting workplace sports and social clubs, as well as a simple education programme to raise employees’ awareness about health and wellbeing and demystify existing nutrition advice.

Employers can devise programmes in-house or use external providers to support their efforts.

For example, UK charity Weight Concern offers an adult weight management programme called Shape Up, as well as training and education services to tackle weight management. The organisation also offers workplace health assessments and a series of recommendations for employees to consider, such as occupational health services, where available.

Doctor Laura McGowan, executive director at Weight Concern, says: “You can’t force employees, so it’s just a case of signposting things and making sure systems are in place [to support them].”

EnergiseYou’s Gray adds: “Employers should make [programmes] voluntary and always use positive language.”

Accordingly, EnergiseYou offers one-hour workshops, podcasts and webinars to help educate and inspire staff to lead healthier lifestyles. Similarly, dietician AC Health and Nutrition runs weight management seminars to educate employees about, for example, food labelling and portion size control, helping them manage their weight.

Stigma of obesity

But Gray warns employers not to use the term ‘obesity’ in their strategy literature because of the stigma associated with it.

McGowan adds: “Obese is essentially a clinical term that denotes a certain condition; it is not necessarily a useful description for the public. Because of the way obesity has been portrayed in the media, with the typical picture of people walking down the street wearing ill-fitting clothes and eating chips out of a Styrofoam container, the majority of the population disengages because they don’t identify with it.”

Alison Clark, managing director of AC Health and Nutrition, says: “We find that when most people do their BMI, they don’t realise they are obese in the first place. It’s often [a result of] denial.”

The most successful approach is therefore likely to be a comprehensive health and wellbeing strategy that promotes healthy living but does not single out individuals, and is embedded within an organisation’s culture.

Gray adds: “It’s all about balance and healthy diet and using words that people can relate to.”

But doctor William Bird, founder of health IT provider Intelligent Health, says employers should not be focusing on diet at all, but on exercise. “I’m training up doctors in London and telling them it’s not all about obesity any more; it’s about activity,” he says.

“As a result of exercise, the fat from inside the body, the really damaging fat where the guts are and around the liver, moves out into safer places, so [an employee] won’t actually lose weight, but their health improves hugely.”

Bird acknowledges the challenges employers face in taking a fitness-led approach to tackling obesity, not least the need for staff to move around their working environment at least every hour.

Workplace adjustments

Bird recommends that employers consider simple workplace adjustments, such as introducing standing desks, and encouraging employees to commute to and from work on foot or by bicycle wherever possible.

But whatever approach employers take to addressing obesity, some form of action is needed to tackle what is a pressing issue.

Weight Concern’s McGowan says: “Although it would be great if the NHS, or public health teams and local authorities, could deal with the burden on their own, it’s unrealistic to assume it’s all down to them and general practice to negate the issue.

“If large employers can get involved, then they really should, because we know that the more engaged employees are in a variety of ways, including health and wellbeing, leads to greater productivity and a reduction in absenteeism.”

Read also How employers can promote heart health in the workplace at:

Viewpoint: Charlotte Cheeseman: Unhealthy workplace practices employers should avoid

Firstly, employers should avoid offering a poor selection of healthy food in their workplace canteens.

They should limit the sale of high-fat, high-sugar foods, such as chips and burgers, and replace these with cheap, tasty, healthy alternatives, such as salads, jacket potatoes and soups, which will allow staff to make healthier choices.

Employers should also ensure there are sufficient low-calorie snacks, such as fruit, low-fat yogurts and vegetable crudites, available because the tiredness and boredom employees often experience from sitting at a desk all day often leads to snacking.

Research has shown that people eat more when sitting at a computer than when sitting in a less distracting area. This is why employers should enforce adequate meal breaks which take employees away from their desks. Adequate breaks should also improve employees’ concentration and productivity.

Another cause of overeating in the workplace is the biscuit or cake tin. Popular programmes such as The Great British Bake-Off have led to many offices being supplied with a constant stream of cakes and biscuits from amateur bakers. This can be a great way to build staff relations, but it can be a nightmare for employees trying to lose weight.

Employers could overcome this issue by introducing monthly bake-offs in their offices which allow employees to show off their baking skills, but by way of a monthly treat rather than an everyday occasion.

Physical activity is an important part of weight loss, so employers can also encourage staff to be as active as possible, perhaps by offering bikes-for-work schemes and discounted corporate gym memberships.

In-house weight loss support groups and programmes can also be really useful for employees who do not have the time or money to attend a membership fee-based programme.

Finally, employers should be mindful of workplace discrimination relating to obesity. Being overweight can cause, or be caused by, depression, social isolation and stress, so discriminating against affected employees is not only immoral, but will only make the problem worse.

Charlotte Cheeseman is a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association


Case study: Dell has global focus on weight

Technology provider Dell tackles obesity as part of its global healthy culture initiative, which is based on peer-to-peer recognition.

Under the initiative, the organisation supports its employees around the world to take part in, and share, sporting clubs and challenges with their peers via various social media platforms and blogs.

Tre McCalister, global health strategist at Dell, says: “We find that success stories of our team members actually inspire others and encourage them to be more likely to take steps to improve their own health.”

Sporting groups include walking, jogging and cycling, while challenges include global healthy site awards, which recognise work sites where employees have, for example, lost weight or improved their physical fitness.

Healthcare benefits offered to Dell employees include on-site health centres and gyms in larger office locations, and discounted corporate gym membership for staff in smaller offices, as well as healthy options in the employer’s on-site cafes.

Employees also have access to a global employee assistance programme. “It can help [employees] to manage stress and work-life balance from an emotional aspect,” says McCalister.

“It’s very important for employees to be able to make healthy lifestyle choices. It’s been pretty well researched that when people are stressed, they make different choices around food and exercise than they would otherwise.

“What we’re trying to do is to create a culture that wraps around the work environment, but that encourages and recognises our team members.”

Read the full digital edition of the Health and Wellbeing supplement.