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The ‘taboo’ of weight in the workplace


Weight is a personal rather than a personnel issue; the result primarily of poor lifestyle decisions outside of work, right? Wrong. While employers do need to tread sensitively, long hours, stress, poor food options, drinking cultures and sedentary roles can all have a direct effect on weight and are areas employers can tackle proactively, as Paul Avis outlines. 


It has long been recognised that employers have a duty of care towards their employees when it comes to health and wellbeing. Just last year, the government issued its green paper backing workplace wellness schemes, stating that “investing in workplace inclusivity, health and wellbeing is critical”.[1] Many employers agree that personal wellbeing is a contributing factor in improving employee performance and retention.


But health and wellbeing at work is not just about fulfilling health and safety requirements. Many employers now offer additional benefits to promote a healthier workforce. It has now become commonplace to see a whole host of support services and benefits being offered to both attract and retain staff, from tackling workplace stress to providing fresh fruit daily to encourage a happier and healthier workplace environment.


There is one area of occupational wellbeing where the onus is still firmly placed upon the individual: weight and dieting. The latest figures released by the government show an alarming increase of morbidly overweight adults in the UK over the past 25 years.[2] A quarter (26%) of adults in the UK (27% of women and 26% of men) now fall into the category of ‘obese’, and less than half (37%) are normal weight.


While it is often assumed that employees are gaining weight due to lifestyle decisions they make outside of the workplace, such as a largely inactive social life including heavy alcohol consumption, high-calorie meals and too little exercise, this explanation might be too simplistic for this complex issue.


Research carried out by Canada Life has shown that two fifths (39%) of UK workers say they have put on weight as a direct result of their job or find maintaining their weight more difficult since starting their current role.[3]


Considering the fact that nearly two thirds (64%) of UK workers surveyed spend the majority of their day sitting down, and the average 9-5 worker spends 40 hours a week at work, it is clear that your job can have a significant impact on your weight.


However, it is not just a day spent sitting down that can contribute to weight problems for many UK employees. Many tend to skip lunch or resort to convenience foods when they’re stressed or particularly busy at work; more than two fifths (42%) say that these factors cause them to overeat or choose unhealthy food. More than half (52%) say they’re more likely to make unhealthy food choices when they’re at work, firmly placing the issue into office hours as well as outside of work.


Work/life balance is something that many employees struggle with. Not striking the right balance can have a big effect on life, from social plans to mental health, as well as having an impact on the waistline. Many might like to exercise more, but half (51%) of respondents to our survey said that long working hours prevented them from doing so, and even more were too tired before or after work to exercise (61%).


A further contributing factor is undoubtedly the ongoing drinking culture in British offices, which a third of UK employees (33%) agree is present at their workplace. Drinks trolleys and team pub evenings have found a place as a long-established workplace treat in many companies and can provide an opportunity to build a more relaxed culture employees feel they can let their hair down in.


However, more than a quarter of employees (28%) have previously felt pressured into drinking alcohol at work by colleagues and management. With 7.1kcal in every gram of alcohol, it is highly likely that such a workplace culture leads to involuntary weight gain.


While individuals have a responsibility for their own health, employers need to make sure the workplace they manage has minimal risk of negatively impacting the wellbeing of staff, and that includes weight and diet.


It can be a difficult subject to tackle but, delivered in a sensitive way, employers and HR professionals have an opportunity to make a difference. Having a positive effect need not be difficult and can start by asking some straightforward questions that help ‘health-proof’ their workplace. Is the culture negatively affecting employees’ health? Are healthy living initiatives in place? Could this include gym memberships and cycle to work schemes? If initiatives are in place are they being communicated effectively?


Making change can seem like a daunting prospect but there is help out there. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), provided with most group income protection products, can be a very effective way to implement and promote better workplace practices with health portals, flyers and posters just some of the options available.


Finally, employers need to ensure they aren’t afraid to broach difficult topics such as weight and stress. It’s important not to offend, but at the same time, it’s just as important to ensure staff are healthy, happy, and ultimately productive.


How to address weight issues in the workplace

  • Stop the stress. To tackle the root of overeating and poor food choices for many employees, an EAP can help detect overworking and increased stress early before your workforce reaches for fast (food) solutions.
  • Offer healthy options. A healthy canteen in the workplace can nudge employees into making healthier meal choices as the more convenient option instead of going out for fast food.
  • Have different initiatives. Instead of (or alongside) regular pub nights, a lunchtime cycle or running club can foster employee wellbeing by helping community spirit and
  • Money matters. Being active can be costly. A company-subsidised gym membership or a cycle to work scheme might get employees to sign up and be active.
  • Communication is key.  Do you already have subsidised plans in place? Make sure that employees know about them and how to access them. If no one is asking about them, make sure HR professionals are on hand to start this conversation.


Paul Avis, Canada Life Group Insurance


[1] DWP, Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives, 30 November 2017

[2] HoC Briefing Paper: Obesity Statistics, 20 March 2018

[3] Canada Life Group Insurance: Unhealthy habits at work grow UK waistlines