Obesity is a heavy responsibility

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Over 20% of the UK population is classified as clinically obese.
  • Obesity can lead to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and musculoskeletal problems.
  • Addressing obesity and weight issues can lead to a reduction in sickness absence levels for employers and may result in fewer claims on benefits such as private medical insurance.
  • Benefits that can help tackle obesity in the workplace include pedometers, health screening, nutrition advice, gym membership and weight loss classes.

Obesity is increasing among the UK population and it is in employers’ interests to offer staff benefits that can help tackle the problem, says Tynan Barton

As obesity levels in the UK continue to soar, employers face increasing pressure to improve staff health and wellbeing. The number of obese people in the UK has tripled in 20 years, making it the second most obese nation in the developed world after the US. More than 20% of the UK population is classed as clinically obese, and over 50% is overweight.

The Health and Safety Executive has identified obesity as one of the biggest impacts on employment. And according to the former government’s futures think-tank Foresight, wider costs to the economy relating to obesity, such as reduced productivity caused by sickness absence, amounts to £16 billion. Mike Blake, director at PMI Health Group, says: “Employers are sitting on a time bomb. Obesity can lead to chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and musculoskeletal problems.”

Such conditions can severely affect an employee’s ability to work and invariably leads to more sickness absence, so employers have a vital role in tackling the problem. Dr Steve Iley, head of medical services at Axa Icas, says:

“Employers are involved with the public health issue of how to support people with obesity. It is about looking at the wellbeing of their employees as a whole, not necessarily focusing on obese individuals.”

Duty-of-care obligations

Investing in health and wellbeing strategies to tackle obesity can not only help employers meet their duty-of-care obligations to staff, but will also help position them as good places to work if they are seen to be concerned with employees’ wellbeing. “It is important employees have the opportunity to keep mobile and active in the workplace, which can be as simple as encouraging them to use the stairs instead of a lift,” says Iley.

Options for employers include providing advice on nutrition, subsidised healthy food in staff restaurants, gym membership, on-site exercise classes and pedometers. These can all help to encourage staff to make significant changes in their lifestyle. In some cases, employers will have to galvanise people into action, says Blake. “Arrange an on-site mini-screening with a wellbeing company and then give people the tools to actually do something about [the results]. Encourage them to exercise in their lunch break and not just sit at their desks.”

Taking action to tackle obesity levels now could also stand employers in good stead for the future. About 30% of UK children are now classed as obese, so for employers considering future generations of workers, the problem will remain. “It is a problem that is only going to get worse,” warns Iley.

Prevent long-term sickness

As obesity grows, so the consequences will worsen. Lara Rendell, marketing manager at health cash plan provider Health Shield, says: “Addressing the issues early can prevent long-term sickness before more serious issues arise and potentially cause more time off work.”

The advantages for employers in taking action to tackle obesity could include greater staff engagement and productivity, as well as reduced absence levels. A healthier workforce could also result in reduced claims on benefits such as private medical insurance.

Employers may find the healthier their workforce, the greater the likelihood of the cost of their benefits falling. Supporting staff with health and wellbeing benefits may actually save money in the long run.