· Features

Obesity in the workplace: It’s time to take a pro-active approach

According to the Office of National Statistics, the reported level of obesity in the UK has significantly increased during the past two decades.

In 1993, recorded levels were 13% for men and 16% for women, but these have now risen to 24% of the adult population. In other words, nearly one in four adults in the UK are obese.

However, the CIPD's recently published Absence Management Report 2013 finds only 29% of employees receive advice from their employers on healthy eating initiatives. Isn't it now time that employers start to more pro-actively educate and support employees to combat obesity and the associated business risks?

Far-reaching effects

The impact of obesity on our society is significant. In the UK it is estimated to cost the NHS about £5 billion a year. In addition, obese employees are more likely to take short and long periods of sickness absence from work in comparison to their healthier colleagues.

Obese employees could demand to be treated as 'disabled' under the Equality Act 2010. This view was tested earlier this year in the Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Case.

The claimant, Mr Walker, who weighed more than 21 stone, brought a discrimination claim against his employer on grounds of disability. He suffered health problems including asthma, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression. The Tribunal found that he was not disabled under disability discrimination legislation (now contained in the Equality Act 2010.)

However, Walker appealed arguing that obesity itself rendered him disabled. The Employment Appeals Tribunal rejected the previous Tribunal's ruling and held that Walker was in fact disabled, not from obesity, but from the resulting impairments of it.

Employer Concerns

Perhaps one reason employers appear loathe to approach obesity in the workplace is a concern about how far they can go to intervene in employees' lifestyles without having claims of discrimination levelled against them.

In the United States, the notion that obesity amounts to a disability under law is gaining momentum. In light of this, employers might want to consider what steps they can take, not just to deal with obesity-related issues, but preventing them in the first place.

Encouraging exercise and healthy eating through cycle-to-work schemes, discounted gym membership and providing free, fresh fruit in offices once a week would be a good starting point.

Tackling obesity

Weight loss initiatives can't be done in isolation. Instead they need to be part of a far broader initiative to promote staff health and wellbeing. There's so much that employers can do to help deal with the issue of obesity in their workforce cost effectively. Here are a few ideas:

1) Encourage employees to take their full lunch hour and go for a walk or participate in exercise sessions. A walk to the local sandwich shop is not enough. Too many employees sit at their desk and eat their lunch and many skip their lunch break already, which does nothing to foster a healthy culture.

2) Encourage walking meetings and the principle that you can have discussions without being sedentary or having a drink.

3) Provide employees with pedometers so they can measure their physical activity. Many people are surprised at the level of walking needed to cover the recommended 10,000 steps a day. If pedometers are provided, set team challenges or fundraising events.

4) Make sure the management team embraces your healthy lifestyle by being seen to eat well and take part in charity challenges, such as Cancer Research's Race for Life.

5) If you're a smaller employer, speak to your local gym to see if you can get discounted rates for your employees. Then promote their lunch time exercise classes.

6) Introduce weight loss challenges, either bringing in external resource to assist with the education and weekly weigh-ins. Or team up with a local weight loss provider such as Weight Watchers or Slimming World.

7) Provide employees with information on reputable weight-control apps. There are plenty to choose from and information on calorie calculation, exercise and diet can be downloaded for little or no cost.

8) Link in with the NHS's Change4Life where there is excellent information about diet and exercise.

9) Identify someone in the office who is very engaged in physical exercise, make them a wellness champion and get them to encourage and motivate other staff to participate in lunch time walks and exercise.

10) Host informal (and accurate) 'lunch-and-learn' type sessions on the link between being overweight and obese and development of chronic disease.

It takes time to change behaviour, so do arrange regular follow up sessions for anyone participating in wellness challenges.

In the United States, employers are taking a much harder approach to health and wellness due to the increasing cost of medical insurance – costs which increasingly depend on the individual employee's health and their engagement with their employer's wellness programmes.

Although it is unlikely to get this extreme in the UK, employers here need to do something to raise awareness of the risks of obesity, inactivity and unhealthy lifestyles and positively encourage employees to make the right choices. It'll be better for your business in the long-term, but ultimately it's your employees who will benefit the most.

Beate O'Neil (pictured) is head of wellness consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting