Obesity is a worldwide epidemic. So what? It leads to huge workplace losses in billions of dollars annually. Again, so what? I am not so sure that I care about the problem. My interest is really the solution. People are hired for their good brains and they often get the job done. If obesity strikes, does it lower the mental capacity of employees? I am not aware of any scientific evidence which supports that. So. I’d be pissed if I got fired because I put on some weight. It is unfortunate that workplaces do not realize how culpable they are in the fat gains of their staff.
A more result-oriented approach would be to sack obesity from the workplace and not the staff especially if they are loyal. So, I will explore the problems associated with obesity in workplaces, then, I will discuss why the company will lose more by letting obese staff go. And the part we all love, We discuss the way out.
When is a person considered obese?
Obesity is a condition where a person has accumulated so much body fat that it might have a negative effect on their health. It’s about much more than clothing size or looks. It can seriously affect a person’s health. The whole body feels it, from the joints to your heart, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other systems. The extra fat cells produce inflammation and various hormones, which boosts the odds of chronic medical conditions. If a person’s body weight is at least 20% higher than it should be, he or she is considered obese. Body Mass Index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight while BMI of 30 or over is considered obese.
The body mass index (BMI) is a statistical measurement derived from your height and weight. Although it is considered to be a useful way to estimate healthy body weight, it does not measure the percentage of body fat. The BMI measurement can sometimes be misleading – a muscle man may have a high BMI but have much less fat than an unfit person whose BMI is lower. However, in general, the BMI measurement can be a useful indicator for the ‘average person’.
Why do people become obese?
People can become obese for many different reasons. Lets look at some of the most common ones:
1) Consuming too many calories.
2) Leading a sedentary lifestyle
3) Not sleeping enough
Research has suggested that if you do not sleep enough your risk of becoming obese doubles. Research was carried out at Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick. The risk applies to both adults and children. Professor Francesco Cappuccio and team reviewed evidence in over 28,000 children and 15,000 adults. Their evidence clearly showed that sleep deprivation significantly increased obesity risk in both groups. Work pressures contribute significantly to this.
4) Endocrine disruptors, such as some foods that interfere with lipid metabolism.
A team from the University of Barcelona (UB) led by Dr Juan Carlos Laguna published a study in the journal Hepatology that provides clues to the molecular mechanism through which fructose (a type of sugar) in beverages may alter lipid energy metabolism and cause fatty liver and metabolic syndrome.
5) Lower rates of smoking (smoking suppresses appetite)
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “Not everyone gains weight when they stop smoking. Among people who do, the average weight gain is between 6 and 8 pounds. Roughly 10 percent of people who stop smoking gain a large amount of weight – 30 pounds or more.”
6) Medications that make patients put on weight
According to an article in Annals of Pharmaco-therapy, some medications cause weight gain. “Clinically significant weight gain is associated with some commonly prescribed medicines. There is wide inter-individual variation in response and variation of the degree of weight gain within drug classes. Where possible, alternative therapy should be selected, especially for people predisposed to overweight and obesity.”
7) Is obesity self-perpetuating?
The longer a person is overweight, the harder it becomes for them to lose weight. Many have wondered whether obesity itself becomes a permanent state, i.e. does obesity promote obesity?. Researchers from the University of Michigan and the National Council of Science and Technology (COINCET) in Argentina, reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that in animal experiments, obesity seems to become a self-perpetuating state. They found that the “normal” body weight of mice that become obese starts going up; their bodies’ perception of normal weight becomes a heavier than before, regardless of whether they are made to go on diets which had made them lose weight.
8) Obesity gene
A faulty gene, called FTO, makes 1 in every 6 people overeat, a team of scientists from University College London reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (July 2013 issue). Lead researcher, Racher Batterham, explained that people who carry the FTO gene variant tend to eat too much, prefer high-energy, fatty foods, and are usually obese. They also seem to take longer to reach satiety (feeling of being full).
Ways the Workplace is contributing to obesity.
A number of ways the workplace can contribute to increased weight gain are listed below. These conditions do not all exist all at once in every workplace.
- Hours of sitting
- Your long commute
- On-the-job stress
- Late nights
- Lack of wellness programs
- Food-freebies: Candy jars and freebie tables
- Influence of coworkers’ eating habits
- Constant office parties
- The vending machines if your workplace has one.
- The elevator
- Lack of sunlight
- Business trips
- Overnight shifts
- Distracted eating
- Excessive use of digital devices
- Happy hours and networking events
What a Workplace can do about Obesity?
Workplaces control obesity if they apply a number of activities. Such activities have been identified by Forbes.
Act 1: Raise awareness of obesity and its effects and prevention.
Awareness of the obesity problem is the first step to addressing the problem. Not everyone may realize the full impact of obesity including immediate and longer term health problems such as musculoskeletal ailments, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer and psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. Most people realizes what aspects of the work environment could be contributing to obesity. Holding awareness sessions and closely evaluating the work environment could go a long way.
Act 2: Help employees track their diets, physical activity and body mass index (BMI).
In many industries, the saying goes, “you can’t manage or improve what you can’t measure.” The same applies to many aspects of health. Until I started counting how many muffins I would eat in a week, I did not realize that I really knew the muffin man much too well. It can similarly be helpful to encourage employees to use (or purchase for employees) books, logs, devices and mobile applications to track their diets, calories consumed, physical activity and key measures such as blood pressure. Keep in mind that skimping on subpar devices or applications can lead to misleading information. Also, employees may need reassurance that the employer is not monitoring or has access to this information…as was the case in George Orwell’s 1984 or the movie The Firm.
Act 3: Reinvent the desk and workspace.
Recently, a number of people have labeled sitting as “the new smoking,” which does not refer to a recommended position or new way to smoke tobacco. Instead, this phrase arose from studies suggesting that sitting for long periods of time can lead to obesity, a number of chronic diseases and increased mortality. Therefore, some workplaces have responded with various strategies such as installing contraptions such as standing desks and treadmill desks that allow people to stand or move around more while working.
When you interact with others, you rarely sit with little movement for a lengthy period of time…unless you are engaging in a stare down. By contrast, boredom, isolation and loneliness can lead to worse eating habits and moving around less. When office mates feel bonded with each other, they also may be more likely to look out for each other’s health. Team-building exercises, eating lunch together, social events, forming cooking and exercise groups and comfortable meeting spaces are just some of the ways that you can facilitate social connections.
Act 5: Improve the food environment.
As some have previously said, you are where you eat. Regardless of your intentions, eating healthy can be very difficult without ready access to healthy food. Therefore, an employee’s diet can depend heavily on the types of kitchens, vending machines, and cafeterias and the food provided at the workplace as well as the potential food sources (e.g., local restaurants and grocery stores) close to the workplace. Providing easy access to water, such as providing water coolers, filtered faucets and bottled water, can offer employees healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages. Attractive and ample kitchen space can encourage employees to bring food from home. Also, keep in mind that many employees may venture into the surrounding neighborhood to get food. So if you have a choice of office locations, you may consider choosing a place that has restaurants and stores that sell healthy food.
Act 6: Improve the physical activity environment.
Moving back to the movie Die Hard, John McClane tends to take the stairs rather than the elevator. While his reason (for example, the elevator has been destroyed) for taking the stairs may be different from what is usually encountered in an office setting, the useful message is that the physical environment can dictate how often and much you move. The location of the stairs and elevator, the layout and lighting of the office space, the placement of communal gathering locations, and the presence of on-site fitness centers and gyms can all affect how much and when you move. On-site fitness and exercise classes also can encourage physical activity. As with the food environment, the physical activity environment around the office is important as well. A safe surrounding neighborhood with nearby parks, gyms and recreation centers can facilitate more physical activity.
Act 7: Decrease financial barriers to healthy diets, exercise and other weight control measures.
Unfortunately, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can cost money. Fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods typically cost more than highly processed convenience foods. Part of the reason for this is that fresh, unprocessed foods are more expensive to transport and maintain. Gym memberships, sports equipment and sports league membership also can be quite expensive. Negotiating group discounts and subsidizing these expenses for employees can help overcome these barriers. Also, health insurance can cover different preventive and weight control measures.
Act 8: Manage stress.
Stress is another barrier to a healthy lifestyle. Stress can lead to unhealthy habits, such as poor eating and lack of sleep, and may even alter your metabolism, all of which can lead to weight gain. There is a fine line between good stress and bad stress. The workplace can’t be all fun and games, otherwise nothing would get accomplished. However, bad stress arises from unnecessarily criticizing, pressuring, or intimidating employees and failing to listen to employee needs or offer adequate support.
Act 9: Encourage physically active commuting.
When choosing office locations, one consideration can be its accessibility via walking or cycling. You can encourage walking or cycling by ensuring that the immediate office surroundings are safe. Also, you can make your office walking, jogging, and bike friendly by having locker rooms, showers, and secure places to store bicycles. Other possibilities are offering discounts for taking transportation or subsidies for those who leave the car at home.
Act 10: Bolster employees’ support networks.
Finally, at the end of most action movies, the hero ends up among family and friends, which highlights the importance of social connections. Your social and family network can lead to either a healthier (by providing support and positive influence) or unhealthier (by lack of support and negative influence) lifestyle. While people differ in how much they want to mix their professional and personal lives, you can offer opportunities to boost employees’ social networks such as flexible working hours, time off from work, social events that welcome family members and friends, discounts for gyms and fitness classes that include family members, and other vehicles to galvanize bonding and improve the health of those around the employees.
Remember that the workplace is a system, and obesity can result when this system is askew. When one part of the system is not working all other parts are affected. All ten of the aforementioned Acts could result in many benefits beyond employee health such as increasing productivity and decreasing costs and employee turnover.
Michael is a Project Manager with years of experience in nonprofits and managing startups. He shares what he has learnt over time with like-minded persons. He gives classes to persons who plan a future in the nonprofits sector or as entrepreneurs.