· 2 min read · Features

Obesity is a ticking time bomb employers can help defuse

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Today, the average Brit is burning fewer calories yet consuming more. Two thirds of the UK's adult population is overweight, a quarter is obese and all the signs are that the situation is getting worse.

Health and wellbeing in the UK is declining due to a number of factors, including an ageing working population, less active lifestyles and the increased availability of cheap, processed foods.  

Obesity causes chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Already, the NHS is paying £4 billion every year to manage the impact of obesity and this bill is set to soar if more isn't done to bring the population's burgeoning weight under control.

As well as having an impact on the individual's life expectancy, obesity also has a major effect on workplace productivity. This is because obese people tend to take more time off work for illnesses than their more healthy colleagues, hitting the employer not only in lost time but also through greater health insurance premiums and the cost of hiring temporary staff to fill gaps. Employer-led weight loss encouragement would help alleviate these problems. 

Employers can gain so much from obese staff that are achieving managed weight loss - because they have new levels of energy and engagement and are probably feeling far more positive about themselves as a result of their achievements. For those employers that actively promote weight loss programmes, they probably benefit even more through the extra loyalty staff tend to show in recognition for the support.

In these extremely tough times, it is in the employer's best interests to play a keen role in looking after their core assets, their people. There are a growing number of examples of employers taking a lead on this issue, and an increasing volume of evidence to show the return on investment in targeted employee health and wellbeing programmes. But the reality of the recession is that many organisations are so focused on short-term cost-cutting, that they are failing to take a strategic view on investing in low-cost and high return initiatives such as managed weight loss campaigns. These employers should think again.

Our view is that the vast majority of people know how to lose weight in a sensible way - eat a balanced diet of nutritional food and exercise more - but they don't have the long-term motivation to do it. We all know someone who has successfully lost weight after an initial burst of enthusiasm, but gave up after a few months.

What can the employer do? There is the option to provide subsidised membership to gyms, but more simple encouragement can be very effective for staff and won't cost much.  Employers could make healthier options in onsite vending machines and canteens a bit cheaper than the less healthy alternatives, for instance, or remind staff through discreet signage to use the stairs, when they can, rather than the lift.

To take these kinds of initiatives to the next level, employers should consider programmes that will help their staff maintain their weight loss over the long-term. Of course, this is the Holy Grail.

Obesity in the workplace is no longer an issue to push under the carpet. Left unmanaged, the situation will become an ever-greater burden for organisations. HR functions need to face up to the challenge of how they will handle this ticking time bomb.

Winton Rossiter is founder and managing director of Weight Wins