Written by Ellie Caley, Business Psychologist at Wellity Global

The UK’s obesity crisis is certainly not a new topic of discussion. At various points over the past decade (and even longer) we’ve seen a renewed effort to tackle rising levels of obesity, whether it be the government, NHS, public health organisations or campaigners.

And yet, in 2019, the Health Survey for England showed that 28% of the adult population was clinically obese while more than a third are classified as overweight - that’s more than half of the adult population in England considered overweight or obese.

We are experiencing a silent but deadly global obesity epidemic, despite it being known to be the fifth leading risk for deaths around the world.

As obesity and poor physical health continues to rise in the UK, employers are now starting to consider the impact on their businesses and performance at work.

How does obesity impact performance at work?

Studies typically explore the significance of obesity as a risk factor for noncommunicable physical health diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal disorders, and this is often the focus in news reporting and TV programmes. However, less is known about the impact obesity has on the day-to-day life of employees, particularly when it comes to productivity and performance levels at work.

Recent studies have shown that obesity has a dramatic and adverse impact on workers, and by extension, their employers. Employees who are overweight or obese often show increased rates of sick days and lower productivity while working in comparison with their colleagues who are not overweight or obese.

Do employers have a responsibility to tackle obesity?

Traditionally, employers had very little involvement in the personal matters of their employees. Now, however, more and more organisations are waking up to the direct effect these have on their performance.

Whether or not responsibility lies with the employer to encourage better physical health is an ongoing debate with arguments varying from the greater good of employee health and business performance to inappropriate interference in personal lives.

Since we spend a significant part of our lives at work, it has been recognised that the workplace is one of the most important and appropriate settings to promote healthy living to ensure a motivated and productive workforce where their wellbeing is put first.

Research suggests that certain working environments actually encourage obesity. In particular, a stressful working environment, shift work and longer working hours have been shown to increase the risk of obesity in workers.

How employers can encourage better physical health

If you believe you do have a responsibility to improve the physical health of your employees, and you’re at the start of your workplace wellbeing journey with a very limited budget, there are a number of quick (and free) wins that can encourage a healthier environment and discourage unhealthy behaviours.

Outdoor breaks

According to Bupa, nearly a third of workers in the UK eat lunch at their desk, with nearly half of those saying they are ‘too busy’ to take a proper lunch. Naturally, that results in a lack of physical activity throughout the day.

Actively encouraging your workforce to take regular breaks where they leave their desks will foster a more active environment. Lunch breaks are a great opportunity to get out of the office (or home, as many of us have been for well over a year now) and get some exercise, whether it’s a run or a brisk walk.

Walking meetings

Walking meetings are an excellent way to get the team out and about for a bit of exercise while reaping creative benefits. Studies have shown that people generate more ideas and think more creatively when they’re away from their desk, out of the office and on the move. It has also been suggested that walking meetings not only boost creativity during the walk, but afterwards as well.

There is a caveat, however. Other studies have suggested that walking meetings are only effective when idea creation is the purpose - if you need a meeting to come to a decision, you may want to leave that for the office.

Scrap the (un)healthy vending machines

Vending machines are typically a haven for high-fat and high sugar snacks, and a huge temptation for workers craving something sweet. Sure, they could pop to the local shop if they really want something, but they don’t even need to leave the office when there’s a vending machine. While it may be a tempting cost saving to remove the vending machine completely, it may push staff to head to the shop or bring their own unhealthy snacks. Instead, it may be a better option to swap it for a health vending machine, offering fruit and natural, sugar-free snacks. The vending machine may cost a little more, but you’ll see the benefits from a wellbeing angle.

Rewarding activity

This one requires a bit more investment, but offering rewards for activity can prove incredibly effective. There are plenty of businesses and platforms providing a service that allows users to track their activity and earn rewards as they exercise. Alternatively, you could look to implement your own reward system - a certain number of minutes exercise earns an early finish on Friday, for example.

If you’re creating your own reward system, be sure to make it inclusive and fair - seeing the office ultra marathon runner rack up stacks of rewards for every mile they run is actually likely to be quite de-motivating for those who are less active. Instead, try to build a system where everyone can earn the same amount of rewards in a way that is achievable, but motivates those who are less active.

Open dialogue

Have an open dialogue with your workforce about your plans and bring them into the thought process (maybe go for a walking meeting!). Talking to your workforce will help to shape an effective strategy that really works for them and for you as the employer.

Announcing a new physical activity strategy isn’t going to result in the whole team heading out on day one to go for a run, or to the gym on their lunch break while they cut out unhealthy foods. The conversation needs to continue way past the announcement in order to embed physical activity and wellbeing into your culture.

It’s vitally important to remember that workplace wellbeing, and getting the workforce to be more active, is a journey.

At the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards we will be celebrating a business that has created a specialist initiative or programme dedicated to improving its workforce’s physical wellbeing in our ’Best Physical Initiative’ award.