Updated 18 May 2018

Obesity in the workplace: What role should your employer be playing?

We’re constantly bombarded with info telling us being overweight is dangerous. But what should your employer be doing to encourage healthy living?

We see it in the news, in magazines and on social media – we are constantly warned about the dangers of being overweight or what the "perfect" size is. In fact, your doctor may have even warned you that you’re putting on a few extra kilos...

But is it ever okay for an employer to broach the subject of obesity in the workplace? Lynne Frost, a business coach who will be speaking at the 2018 Festival of Learning hosted by the South African College of Applied Psychology, weighs in.

Frost says the workplace is a prime environment for helping employees to address the issues of overweight and obesity.

“Employed adults spend around one-third of their time at work, so employers have many opportunities to promote individual health and foster a healthy work environment,” she explains. “Employers that encourage healthy behaviours, like smarter eating and regular physical activity, benefit along with their employees.”

Obesity affects our economy

Although super-morbid obesity is relatively uncommon, Frost says that obesity and morbid obesity in developing countries is said to have tripled or quadrupled in the last few decades.

“Food is big business, so a key contributor to obesity is the increasing consumption of cheap, unhealthy fast foods and sugary drinks as a result of the proliferation of global fast food franchises in developing countries such as South Africa,” she says.

She points to a 2018 study of the Top 10 Fattest Countries in the World that ranks South Africa as seventh – we are one of the first African countries to appear on this list.

A high percentage of fatalities in South Africa are said to be linked to heart attacks and strokes, which are frequently related to being overweight or obese.

Frost says reducing obesity should be an important goal for employers. The economic impact of obesity in the workplace includes:

  • High rates of absenteeism among obese and morbidly obesity employees.
  • Preventable chronic disease associated with obesity, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, cancer and respiratory disease affects the cost of treatment and medical insurance.
  • Obesity is associated with “presenteeism” – this results in lower energy and productivity in the workplace.

Promoting weight loss in the office

There are a number of ways employers can promote weight loss in the workplace. Frost shares four tips to getting started.

1. Workplace canteens can do more than just offer a healthy meal option. “In my opinion, they should stop supplying unhealthy meals and snacks that are high in sugars, carbohydrates and processed content.”

2. Create an environment that supports activity such as open stairwells and walking paths.

3. Make wellness coaches available (either as employees or service providers) for high-risk employees. “Losing weight is tough for anyone, and having a coach to help employees visualise, plan and keep on track to create a different life for themselves can pay off in measurable ways.”

4. Create an online community where colleagues can engage with each other to work on their wellness is an easy step to create support within the employee population.

Image credit: iStock


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