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Managing the Effects of Obesity in the Workplace

6 July 2020

Obesity can result in health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. But what are an employer’s obligations when managing obesity in the workplace?

Following his brush with death as a result of contracting Covid-19, Boris Johnson spoke to the nation stating that the Government will stage a “war on obesity” to address this ongoing health concern. This means employers will have to think more on how they are managing the effects of obesity in the workplace.

This came after research was published acknowledging that being obese can double the risk of needing hospital treatment if you were to contract Covid-19. Other factors which are attributed to raising the need for hospital care as a result of contracting the virus are genetic or social and not within the control of the individual. With obesity it is clear that individuals can be supported to address this concern which would improve their overall health and could help improve other related conditions.

It is estimated that one third of UK adults are categorised as being clinically obese with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. The nation’s level of obesity is amongst the highest in Europe.

Why Is Obesity a Concern for Employers?

Someone’s size in itself does not always have a direct link to their health or impact upon their ability to perform in their role. Where obesity does have an impact is when it results in health issues such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gallstones, breast cancer and bowel cancer, as well as the increased chances of a stroke. Obesity can also impact on an individual’s mental health and lead to depression and low self-esteem.

All these health concerns can seriously impact attendance at work and can often lead to long-term and sporadic absences whilst individuals recover from related conditions or pursue courses of treatment. Absences such as these impact not only on staffing levels and the ability to provide a service but can also affect relationships with clients, stakeholders or suppliers as well as the team who remain in the office. Overall, it can be costly to the business, financially and in management time, to staff morale and service delivery.

The collective cost of not managing the effects of obesity in the workplace for businesses has been estimated to be approximately £10 billion a year.

Is Obesity a Disability and Do I Have to Make Adjustments for It?

Obesity is not a disability, but it could be confirmed as such in the near future. At the present time employees who are obese often have conditions associated with their obesity, these can be a disability.

A disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as a physical or mental impairment that adversely affects a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Whilst employees with obesity can – in the main – still carry out normal day to day activities, in some more extreme cases this could become problematic as it impacts on them physically, at which point it may be classed as a disability.

What Are My Legal Responsibilities to Obese Employees?

Apart from your duty of care to all employees, there are no legal obligations specifically designed to protect obese workers unless they have a disability. Stigmatizing obese employees or allowing other members of the team to do so without taking any steps to prevent that that could be considered to be bullying in the workplace. This is protected by law.

Within health and safety law, all employers need to carry out display screen equipment (DSE) checks and risk assessments which should consider someone’s size. This may result in the need for some specialist equipment such as a larger chair or bigger desk.  If an employee has a disability, then the employer has an obligation to consider and make reasonable adjustments at work.

What Can I Do to Help Support Obese Employees?

Mentioning someone’s weight has always been a very sensitive subject and something which could easily cause offence, potentially leading to a breakdown in a working relationship. As an employer however, you do have a duty of care to all your workers. Therefore, taking a holistic approach – such as reviewing the working environment for everyone – will also have a positive and non-discriminatory impact. Some ideas on managing the effects of obesity in the workplace are as follows:

  1. Offering Loch Training & Wellbeing wellness checks for all staff – These checks can give you an insight into the health of your workforce across several key health risks including: cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Whilst you would not be privy to an individual’s health report, you would get an anonymised workforce report which would allow you to spot trends and develop wellbeing strategies to improve the health of your employees. On an individual level, employees would also directly benefit from insight into their own health empowering them to take proactive steps to minimise the risk of absences from work through ill-health.
  2. Healthy food options – Check your vending machines and staff canteens for healthy options. Consider the ‘culture’ in your teams. Do you encourage healthy eating or do you have regular baking competitions? Do you have a biscuit fund, or do you offer fruit? Unhealthy options are easier to ‘grab on the go’ which is what happens when employees don’t take regular lunch breaks or run out to the shops quickly. Providing enough fridge space for employees to bring in and prepare their own lunches could also help.
  3. Promote physical activity outside the workplace – Think about how your team arrive at work. Are they able to cycle or walk? Could you make this easier by offering safe spaces for bikes or somewhere for them to get changed? If you offer a health care scheme or private medical insurance do you promote the reduced gym memberships these contain? Some businesses encourage staff to have football teams competing in local leagues or have set up running clubs.
  4. Get sedentary employees moving more at work – Many office employees can spend hours sitting down at their desks without moving. This is detrimental to both physical and mental health and is often not necessary. Encouraging employees to take short but regular breaks can help. Ideas can include having a pool printer, shredder or bin that employees need to leave their desks to reach or you could have co-ordinated group ‘deskercise’ sessions where teams join together in the office to complete some sitting exercises at the desk. Walking meetings instead of being stuck in meeting rooms allows employees to leave the building and get some fresh air. Encourage an environment where people get up and talk to each other instead of emailing a question to someone two desks away. Creating a culture where employees personally connect also has a big impact on morale and individual mental health.

Please get in touch if you are interested in finding out more about, managing the effects of obesity in the workplace, DSE assessments or wellbeing checks.

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