Obesity in business has been on the rise over the last two decades, with more than a quarter of all adults in the UK (27%) officially classified as obese as far back as 2015. With that in mind, there’s a high chance that someone in your organisation is obese or overweight.

Experts have warned that obesity and weight-related issues could bankrupt health and social care, with the bill to the NHS estimated to be between £6bn and £8bn in 2015 – and this is continuing to rise.

But the costs are not limited to healthcare resources – businesses are also paying the price. Obesity has wide-reaching cost implications on business, such as increased costs due to long-term sickness absence and a drop in productivity, and there’s also the impact it has on the rest of the workforce.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), an obese person takes an average of four extra sick days a year.

Public Health England has also warned of significant costs associated with obesity in the workplace. The body estimates that an enterprise employing 1,000 people could be losing more than £126,000 per year due to obesity-related health issues, such as back problems and sleep apnoea.

With obesity putting so much pressure on the UK economy and health services it’s no wonder that organisations are uniting to tackle the problem. However, businesses must do their part, too – employees spend a large proportion of their time at work, so it makes sense to try to tackle it in the workplace, not just in individuals’ private lives.

Office work adds pounds to the waistline

The reasons for the increase in obesity rates is a complex one, but one issue hitting the headlines a lot lately is desk jobs, where staff sit for extended periods at work.

All the latest research shows that leading a sedentary lifestyle brings a major risk of ill health. According to a UK study, after sitting down for five hours, workers’ waist circumference increased by 2cm and for every additional hour spent sitting each day, the risk of heart diseases increased by 0.2%.

The circumference of the waist is a common indicator for obesity, along with measuring a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI). If the waistline measures above 94cm for men and 80cm for women, they run an increased risk of health problems. Waistlines above 102cm for men and 88cm for women mean that there’s a greatly increased risk of health problems.

Meanwhile, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that more than a third of adults in Europe are insufficiently active. As well as sedentary jobs there are other factors, such as a reduction of activities like cycling and walking, as society has become increasingly car-friendly; and a drop in active recreation, possibly as an impact of urban design.

Tackling obesity at work

The WHO recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensive aerobic physical activity per week, which is expected to reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease by approximately 30%, the risk of diabetes by 27%, and the risk of breast and colon cancer by 21–25%.

It also highlights the role of exercise in addressing mental health issues by reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Additionally, it’s thought to delay the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Initiatives to tackle workplace obesity include subsidised gym membership, weight management, and wellness coaches. However, real and lasting change should be introduced through the work culture.

Health and wellbeing should be embedded into businesses – including measures such as providing healthy food options and promoting ways to move and stretch during the workday, for example, through the strategic placement of printers and bins away from desks.

Good communication is important here, too. Regular communications should tackle the stigma around obesity as well as educate staff about health and fitness, both supporting and encouraging them to exercise.

Simple steps you can take to help reduce obesity at work

Here are some of the simple steps you could take to help reduce obesity at work:

  1. Encourage staff to take their full lunch break, and to spend some of it outside walking rather than taking it at their desk.
  2. Introduce reduced cost gym membership schemes – and then support lunchtime exercise classes through initiatives such as flexible working arrangements.
  3. Communicate with staff about health and wellbeing. This includes making sure employees are aware of any health-related benefits you offer, and educating them on how to keep fit, such as providing information about healthy living and signposting resources like the NHS’s Change4Life programme, which offers a wealth of tips on diet and fitness.
  4. Establish a healthier work environment. You can do this in various ways including leading by example and supporting charity challenges such as Race for Life, or the Three Peaks Challenge – which offers several benefits, not least improving the fitness of your staff but also promoting teamwork, as well as giving something back.
  5. Weight-loss challenges are a good way to manage employees’ weight. Weekly weigh-ins, with recognition for good work can really help to motivate your staff. You could team up with local weight loss providers, too.

Don’t end up paying a heavy price

There are lots of ways companies can tackle obesity among their staff. The benefits of doing so include reducing sickness absence from weight-related issues such as musculoskeletal problems, chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, various cancers, and psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.

All of these issues can affect productivity and morale across the whole workforce.

The fact is that businesses that fail to recognise how obesity can seriously impact their bottom line could end up paying a very heavy price.

Fight chronic diseases and overcome sedentary lisfestyle