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Obesity in the workplace could cost employers upwards of £120,000 each year

By Rosie Hewitt
Rehabilitation and Delegated Claims Manager

One serious health condition which is attached to more stigma and critique than support and sympathy is obesity. With over 61.4% of adults in the UK considered overweight, 75% of whom are obese, what is the responsibility of employers towards ensuring healthy employees?  Today is World Obesity Day and we look at the topic a little closer.

There are significant workplace costs associated with obesity. For a large organisation employing around 1,000 people, lost productivity caused by obesity could cost more than £126,000 a year.

There is some evidence that obesity increases the risk of some work-related injuries, namely musculoskeletal disorders, stress and vibration induced injury. Traumatic workplace injuries appear to correlate with increased BMI. An American study has shown that the presence of obesity had a stronger effect on the occurrence of acute sprains and/or strains than it did on other types of injury.

Work-related musculoskeletal injuries typically associated with obesity are:

  • lower back
  • lower extremities
  • wrist
  • shoulder

For obese workers, repetitive movements, such as kneeling, squatting and typing can be problematic, resulting in cumulative injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome or osteoarthritis.  As well as being the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK, obesity can also affect the quality of life of employees and lead to psychological problems, such as depression and low self-esteem.

Employers may not have an obligation to ensure that employees enjoy a healthy lifestyle in their own time, but in light of these statistics, 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.

How can employers encourage awareness and support improvement of the health and wellbeing of their employees?

The workplace can play an effective supporting role in the public health campaign for the prevention and treatment of obesity. Encouraging exercise and healthy eating through cycle-to-work schemes, discounted gym membership and the provision of free, fresh fruit in offices are some ways to address the issue. Others include:

  • Encouraging employees to take a full lunch hour, during which they take some form of exercise. Many employees eat their lunch at their desk or skip it altogether which can have a negative impact on their health. 
  • Providing employees with pedometers so that they can measure their physical activity. Many people are surprised at the level of walking required to achieve the recommended 10,000 steps a day. Pedometers can be hugely motivational and can be used to  set team challenges or as a basis for fundraising events.
  • Linking in with the NHS's Change4Life, where there is excellent information about diet and exercise.
  • Providing 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.
  • Identifying 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.
  • Educating employees. Create informal 'lunch-and-learn' type sessions about the link between being overweight and/or obese and the development of chronic disease.
  • Providing ongoing training and awareness programmes to combat prejudice and discrimination against obese people in the workplace.

Employers must become more aware of the risks associated with obesity. If the issue is not addressed, we can only predict more personal injury claims, with longer recoveries resulting in increased claim costs.

For more information, download Tracking the obesity timebomb