· News

Half the world will be overweight by 2035

The World Obesity Federation has warned that more than half the world’s population, 4 billion people, will be classed as overweight or obese by 2035, if current trends continue.

Responding to the WOF's report, HR leaders have recommended employers understand the relationship between obesity and employment, and how to help them handle the condition.

Wellbeing at work:

Cake in the office likened to passive smoking by food watchdog chief

HSE warns employers to prepare for warmer future

Nine in 10 women want better health support at work

Zofia Bajorek, a 2022 HR Most Influential thinker and senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, told HR magazine many employers fail to understand the difficulties faced by people with obesity.

She said: “Our research has found that people living with obesity are discriminated against at every stage of the employment cycle.

“That goes from recruitment all the way through to unemployment, essentially.”

This was especially true, she said, for women with obesity, who faced a significant wage penalty.

Employees were also likely to be stigmatised, seen as lazy or likely to take more sick days, she said.

“Employers need to focus on capacity and not incapacity, and change that mindset. It’s the same as with every long-term condition,” Bajorek said.

Frontline and officer workers face challenges that can lead to them becoming overweight, or finding it difficult to lose weight, according to Bertrand Stern-Gilet, CEO of wellbeing provider Health Assured.

He told HR magazine: “There is often a misunderstanding about the causes of obesity. Various factors can often be at play, including mental health, income, physical activity and environment.

“Shift working often involves long, unsociable hours, making it difficult for people to make time for healthy meals. Those working night shifts might opt for high-sugar foods to help keep them awake, and tiredness might contribute to poor food choices.

Home and office work can also play a factor in weight management. For those sitting down all day, it might be difficult to get enough physical activity. Some people report that working from home also can increase snacking and reduced physical activity.”

He recommended a number of benefits to help employees reinforce healthy habits and shift weight, including discounted gym memberships, fruit deliveries to make healthy eating cheaper and easier, and fitness incentives such as step challenges or free yoga or fitness classes after work.

Employers should be careful when implementing incentives, however, according to Bajorek.

She said: “A lot of obesity-related wellbeing interventions normally focus on the ‘eat less, do more’ mantra, and the simplistic notion that obesity is just caused because people eat a lot and are inactive.

“When organisations implement any health and wellbeing practices, they have to make sure that they are supportive of, and not stigmatising towards, people with obesity.”

Some challenge-based health incentives can actually perpetuate weight-based stigma, she said.

Bajorek explained: "This is especially true, for example, of ones that say if you lose 10 pounds, then you’ll be rewarded with something. It passes on the message of ‘you’re not going to lose weight unless you’re given a reward’.

“It is best for interventions to be co-designed. Talk to the people living with obesity; see what is best for them.”