Workplace offers potential in tackling obesity crisis

The health and wellbeing of staff is key to solving the UK’s obesity crisis, according to the results of a new pilot scheme by Unilever.

Against this backdrop, in 2009, Unilever launched Fit Business, a workplace health pilot to help more than 1,677 Unilever employees in factory and office setting improve their health and fitness. As a result of the pilot’s success, Unilever will roll out Fit Business to all 7,500 employees at its 17 UK and Ireland sites in 2010.

The results of the pilot, which was independently evaluated by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggest businesses can make a significant contribution to improving the health of their employees.

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By engaging employees in health checks, providing attention-grabbing nutritional information in employee restaurants and empowering staff, rather than preaching at them, Unilever’s staff enjoyed a number of positive health outcomes.

These included losing weight and cutting body fat – the initiative achieved a 26% decrease in the weight of factory workers and a 9% decrease in office workers who were overweight or obese. At the same time, 13% fewer factory workers and 12% fewer office workers finished the scheme with an ‘at risk’ body fat level.

More than half (52%) of office workers and 42% of factory workers acknowledged that the pilot had impacted on the quality of their diet. Furthermore, the proportion of office-based workers who “successfully made changes to their diet and stuck to them” increased from 29% to 46% during the year.

Alan Walters, vice president of HR at Unilever UK and Ireland, said: “Most people spend a large proportion of their lives at work. Through taking some simple measures, major employers have a real opportunity to help employees live healthy lives, quickly, on a sufficiently large scale and with no impact on public spending.

By rolling out Fit Business across all of our UK and Ireland sites and sharing our insights into complex behaviour change, we hope to play an important role in helping tackle the rising challenge of obesity facing the UK.”

Based on the evaluation, the IPPR has made a number of public policy recommendations. These include helping leading employers promote workplace health and wellbeing initiatives by disseminating best practice, explore options for extending food labelling into work locations and making partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors work together by agreeing ‘Responsibility Deals’. This can be achieved by using existing occupational health networks to strengthen relationships between the three sectors.

The IPPR added employers should promote a culture of health and wellbeing, promote employee ownership of their own health, be inclusive, implement simple initiatives, use creative approaches and monitor progress of health.

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