Obesity can’t be ignored at work

Three reports call for greater employer intervention
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian Compensation & Benefits Reporter|Last Updated: 06/12/2009

Obesity rates are rising and employers should be concerned. There is a growing link between weight gain and sedentary jobs, and the side effects are considerable: higher absenteeism, health-care costs, disability claims and risk of occupational accidents, along with reduced productivity and weight discrimination.

That’s the overall message in three reports that looked at obesity in the workplace — from Statistics Canada; the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Environmental and Occupational Health in Athens; and Michigan State University — that are strongly encouraging greater employer involvement.

Most employers are still “on the difficult-to-measure, nice-to-have but questionable-impact end of wellness,” said Denise Balch, president of Connex Health in Burlington, Ont. That’s because they don’t understand how to do anything meaningful or how to measure it, she said.

More than two million workers were obese in Canada in 2005. The rate has steadily increased, especially among older men (aged 55 to 64), from 17 per cent in 1994-1995 to 21 per cent in 2005, according to “Obesity on the job” from Statistics Canada. For women, the overall rate rose from 12 per cent to 14 per cent.

There is also a clear correlation between obesity and job performance, found the report. The odds of being absent from work were almost four times higher for obese young men (18 to 34) than for those with normal weight. And for women, obesity may have a negative impact on productivity.

Factors that contribute to the likelihood of overweight or obese workers include low education, marriage, heavy lifting on the job, shift work and excessive hours. Stress is also a probable contributor, said Statistics Canada, as a high psychological workload and lack of social support at work can be causal factors for obesity.

Toronto Police Services encourages ‘biggest losers’

Employer and employee support are evident at the Toronto Police Service (TPS), which has several programs and pilots underway to improve the health and weight of employees.

A health risk assessment in 2006 found 40 per cent of employees were over their body mass index and sleep disorders were common. Shift work was also a problem, with officers working long hours and sitting in cars, with no healthy meals available. Being incredibly busy, they hardly ever took a lunch, said Kim McClelland, wellness co-ordinator with the TPS.

“Officers are doing 10-hour shifts, seven in a row, and it’s stressful. And the stress alone makes people fat,” she said. “It raises lepton in the body and makes you hungry all the time and makes you crave fatty, high-carbohydrate foods — so there’s a definite link between shift work and obesity.”

The force subsidizes individual health assessments for members and offers programs or pilots around fitness, fatigue management and work-life balance. One of the biggest motivators has been “biggest loser” challenges that encourage departments or units to compete to lose weight.

“Across the service, the health awareness has gone up tremendously,” she said, and officers are asking “tough questions” about nutrition as their education level rises.

This kind of commitment is a rarity, according to a report released in April by the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Environmental and Occupational Health. It said employer programs for the prevention of obesity are often lacking because of “the absence of relevant policy, management commitment, financial support and necessary staff for the implementation of such programs.”

Environmental factors are also a challenge, such as the limited availability of nearby recreational areas, a lack of facilities to store healthy food, a lack of breaks and a lack of on-site physical activity facilities, said Guidelines for the Prevention of Obesity at the Workplace, which includes recommendations for employers (see sidebar).

But the workplace is an ideal setting to deal with obesity as the workforce constitutes a relatively stable population in a captive environment, said the guidelines. Interventions at work can attract individuals who normally would be unwilling or unable to seek professional treatment and work sites also offer the potential of social support and influence from co-workers and management.

“When you do things like blood pressure and cholesterol screening in the workplace, that really brings the health consequences not only to the attention of the employer, when you’re sitting back on an aggregate basis, but also to the employee,” said Balch. “That’s when it starts to hit home.”

Weight discrimination

Also a concern is weight discrimination. A recent study by Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., found overweight and obese women are significantly under-represented among the top CEOs in the United States. However, overweight men are overrepresented among top CEOs.

“While being obese limits the career opportunities of both women and men, being ‘merely overweight’ harms only female executives — and may actually benefit male executives,” said Mark Roehling, associate professor of HR management at MSU.

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