Work and the UK obesity epidemic

Is work feeding the UK obesity epidemic?

With the recent news that a North Yorkshire NHS commissioning group has said that obese patients will be refused surgery for up to a year to save money, the issue of obesity in Britain is once again hitting the headlines.

But as our cash-strapped NHS takes the brunt of yet another budgetary backlash, it does raise the issue of how we tackle obesity before it becomes a health issue in the first place.

One major reason behind the increase in obesity is the sedentary lifestyle that many of us are now tied to and a big part of that is because of work.

Whilst some employees enjoy quite active roles, many others will be stuck at a desk for a third of their lives. Add to this hours of unpaid overtime that many staff put in, plus long commutes every day and it is no wonder that many employees feel too tired to exercise or to prepare fresh meals.

What’s more, it is not uncommon these days for ‘cake culture’ to take hold in many work environments. Bringing in the not-so-occasional sweet treat can be seen as a great way to build camaraderie in the workplace or to reward staff. However, whilst this is a very nice idea, it is also an easy way to pile on the pounds while trying to please.

This isn’t just a problem for the employees themselves as they struggle not to put on weight, it is also a major issue for UK plc as it tries to absorb the impact of increased absenteeism and reduced productivity.

So how big is the problem?

In 2014, research led by scientists from Imperial College London and published in The Lancet, found that there were 6.8 million obese men in the UK and 7.7 million obese women. That’s a significant number of people.

Whilst not all of those 14.5 million obese people will be of working age, many will still form part of the current workforce of 31.75 million people.

What’s more, with the sedentary work life described above, those numbers are only likely to grow.

So what can employers do to tackle obesity at work?

The good news is that many employers are in an ideal position to encourage a healthy living culture in and around work.

Here are just a few actions employers can take that can make a big difference to both waistlines and bottom lines:

  1. Set up a healthy eating initiative

Not only can you ask staff to bring in fruit to share rather than cakes and sweets, you can also provide advice on healthy eating so that your staff are aware of how to improve their health through nutrition outside of the workplace as well.

In 2013, the CIPD found that less than a third of employees get advice from their employers on healthy eating initiatives, so this is an area where you can really set yourself apart.

  1. Encourage staff to have an active lunch break

Whether you want to introduce your own gym area to the workplace or just encourage staff to get out for a walk, giving your employees time to focus on fitness at lunchtime can make a big difference to both their health and performance.

Not only can a daily walk or workout help them burn off hundreds of extra calories a week, but they can also offset the documented risks to their health and posture of sitting for 8 hours a day.

In fact, for people with long commutes who struggle to exercise in the morning or evening, lunchtime may be the only realistic time for them to focus on their daily fitness.

  1. Support fitness activities outside of work

Another way you can encourage your staff to stay healthy is to help them focus on fitness outside of work too. There are all sorts of initiatives you can put in place to do this, from implementing cycle to work schemes to offering your staff discounted gym membership.

It’s not always practical for staff to workout at lunchtime, so having options that fit around the working day can be much better for some.

  1. Consider introducing standing desks or treadmill workstations

Offering an alternative to the traditional work desk might be another good way to help improve your employees’ health by reducing the amount of time they spend just sitting.

While they won’t work for all of your staff, treadmill workstations have been shown to help obese people to reduce their waistline and improve their levels of good cholesterol.

Whilst standing desks can be a good alternative for people who struggle with back and neck pain through constant sitting.

That said, working at a standing desk is not likely to prevent obesity on its own and other activities such as walking breaks, healthy eating initiatives and fitness activities should also be considered.

The benefits of tackling obesity at work

By helping your staff to tackle or avoid obesity, you are likely to not only see improvements in attendance, but also in performance and productivity.

In other words, if you want a healthy business you need to ensure that your people are healthy too.

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