Last reviewed 5 May 2017

Obesity has been described as a “global tsunami” which will demand attention in the context of work-related health in years to come. One in four British adults is now clinically obese, with implications for workplace health and safety, productivity, support systems and, potentially, disability management. Vicky Powell examines how employers can help to address the problem.

The fat man of Europe?

According to United Nations figures, one in four British adults is now obese, prompting fears that the UK has become the “fat man of Europe”.

Clinically, a person is considered overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29, and obese with a BMI of 30 and above, and the UK has the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe — ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden.

Furthermore, obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years and, on current estimates, more than half the population could be obese by 2050.

The burden of this picture to the UK economy is high — with 64% of adults classed as either overweight or obese, costs are estimated at £47 billion a year, according to the disability insurer Unum.

The causes of this rapid rise in obesity have been blamed on modern lifestyles, including reliance on the car, televisions and high-calorie food. From an occupational perspective, computers, longer working hours, and more desk-bound jobs over the past decades have resulted in limiting opportunities for activity during the working day.

Worryingly, the consequences of obesity on health include serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal disorders, with people dying needlessly from avoidable diseases.

And in a society where being overweight is the new “normal”, experts believe these trends, which have been three decades in the making, will take far longer to reverse.

Yet the UK is not alone in its obesity trends — one global study by Yale University’s School of Medicine concluded that obesity rates worldwide have doubled over the three decades from 1980 to 2008, with the greatest rates of increase in the UK, USA, New Zealand and Australia.

The author of the study, Jonathan Borak, has warned that while strictly speaking, obesity is not an occupational disease, it poses significant current challenges to occupational health professionals. Moreover, he warned, “the ‘global tsunami’ of obesity will almost certainly demand increasing commitments from occupational health programmes in coming years”.

The implications for the workplace

Obesity impacts on the workplace in all sorts of ways. First, obesity adversely affects workplace costs by decreasing worker productivity and increasing the need for support services and disability management. The National Obesity Observatory, now part of Public Health England, estimates that for an organisation employing 1000 people, workplace costs associated with obesity could equate to more than £126,000 a year in lost productivity due to a range of issues such as back problems and sleep apnoea.

There are also implications for health and safety at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warns that employers may need to take special account of obese workers in work design and risk assessments. Obese workers may encounter certain difficulties at work and examples of workplace issues to consider might include the following.

  • Is equipment designed to accommodate the obese, for example ladders, chairs and seating, workspaces, and personal protective equipment?

  • Are there jobs that the obese cannot do or find more difficult?

  • Are people with a higher percentage of body fat more prone to absorption of chemicals?

  • Obesity is a contributing factor to back problems — could this be a factor in the organisation’s causes of absences from work?

  • Obesity can lead to sleeping problems, resulting in fatigue and possible loss of dexterity. Sleep problems can impact on alertness and may pose a potential danger for people who drive or operate machinery. Could this lead to higher accident risks in the organisation?

  • There may be additional health risks to consider for obese people as a result of strenuous activities. Has the risk assessment considered such factors?

There are also indirect issues, for example, in the caring professions and emergency services. There have been reports of ambulances specially equipped for the obese and of fire brigades acquiring new lifting equipment for rescues specifically to deal with obese victims.

Obesity can lead to prejudice and discrimination in the workplace, lower self-esteem and fewer job opportunities. According to the HSE, the working-age obese may be 15–20% less likely to be in employment than the non-obese, other things being equal. There are myths, misconceptions and stereotyping around obese workers, who may be perceived as less intelligent, lacking in personal discipline, lazy and less productive.

One recent survey by Crossland Employment Solicitors found that nearly half of 1000 British employers questioned said they would be less inclined to recruit an applicant in an interview stage if they were obese.

Beverley Sunderland, Managing Director at Crossland, was quoted at the time of the publication of the research as saying, “On the face of it, the odds are against you getting a job if you are overweight, but the law is on your side, as discrimination law warns against making ‘stereotypical assumptions’ at every stage of the recruitment process and this applies to both existing employees, or people applying for a job.”

According to the government-funded conciliation service Acas, following several court cases in the UK and Europe, it is now accepted that obesity itself is not a disability. However, where obesity causes an impairment which is substantially adverse and long-term, then that impairment might indeed be regarded as a disability by an employment tribunal.

Acas says that whether a condition related to obesity is likely to amount to a disability will depend on all the particular circumstances of the individual case.

Nevertheless, the conciliation service says employers need to ensure obese employees are not subjected to offensive comments or behaviour because of their weight and that obese job applicants are not discriminated against because of their weight.

What can employers do to address obesity?

Although the work environment may actually contribute to increased numbers of overweight and obese workers, it could also provide opportunities for addressing the problem.

Some employers take a proactive approach and the National Obesity Observatory suggests employers consider healthier catering where canteens and vending machines are on site. Certainly, the workplace can become a setting which supports healthy food choices for staff and visitors.

In addition, promoting physical activity and healthy food choices at work can, if carefully managed, help employees to feel valued. Employers might consider introducing walking meetings or non-working lunch times. Corporate schemes for gym memberships and bicycle purchases have also been successfully piloted by some companies.

As an example of best practice, Unilever’s workplace health initiative, Fit Business is part of its global programme to improve employee health and nutrition through the reduction of levels of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Fit Business is based on the provision of information to employees to help them make healthy lifestyle choices. It includes pedometers to encourage physical activity, nutritional information on menus in staff restaurants, healthy cooking master classes and health checks.

Results have been good, with 62% of employees reporting an increase in energy and 46% making improvements to their diet. Overall there were encouraging reductions in obesity and improvements to fitness. The programme has won a number of awards and has been rolled out across over 30 venues in the UK and Ireland reaching 7000 employees.

Experts have argued that encouraging healthier food choices and greater levels of activity for staff is entirely in the spirit of supporting health at work that led employers to ban workplace smoking for example.

Nevertheless, there is the need for a careful balance, with a sensitive approach and plenty of consultation and communication. Nudging staff in a healthy direction may be welcomed but employers will need to guard against any sense of eliminating freedom of choice, or patronising staff, or they risk failing to engage their workforce on this important issue.