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Editor’s Comment: ‘Fat’ attacks UK plc

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Harry Ramsden fish & chip emporium. Guiseley, West Yorkshire

By Annie Hayes, HRZone Editor

The obesity epidemic is putting the brakes on UK productivity as many more workers fall foul to fat-related illnesses; Editor’s Comment examines the issues.



At this time of year we are inundated with diet plans all promising to help us shed those extra Christmas pounds while reality TV shows like ‘Fat Club’ and ‘You are what you eat’ try to persuade us that replacing our caffeine habit with nettle tea and swapping our doughnuts for some sunflower seeds is a good thing.

But as with all New Year’s resolutions, it is at about this time of year that we admit defeat, file the detox plans away for another year and resume our more familiar position on the couch, crisps in hand.

So what is all the fuss about? Is there really an epidemic going on?

The Department of Work and Pensions thinks so.

They have dubbed the situation a ‘time bomb’ waiting for employers.

Anyone who has ordered a breakfast in the United States will believe me when I say that the obesity epidemic stemmed from across the pond. One plate of waffles is quite enough calories to keep you going for a week.

A study in the December issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine stated that nearly 30% of American workers are obese. The conclusion these academics came to was that obesity greatly reduced productivity and greatly increased cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Worse still, the figures show a rising trend towards the upper echelons of the scales. The same survey carried out in 1988-94 showed a worker obesity rate of just 20%.

Sean Sullivan, president and chief executive of the US-based Institute for Health and Productivity Management recently said that employers in the US had woken up to the costs of obesity and obesity-related diseases faster than the government because of rising healthcare costs.

He warned UK employers to take the prevention not cure route.

“For a long time employers were unwilling to see obesity as anything other than a personal problem, but that is now changing. Prevention is always better than cure, and I recommend that UK employers continue to focus on that.”

But is it too late?

A survey released last year by catering firm Avenance revealed that nearly half of Britain’s bosses confess to being overweight.

Stress they said is a key contributor to expanding waist lines. According to their research the majority of business leaders skip meals, survive on caffeine while over 10% drink alcohol every day.

Netdoctor also support the view that we are getting fatter. They claim that the occurrence of obesity has increased by five fold since the Second World War.

But does it matter? It would seem so. Obesity triggers a whole host of diseases and health issues, opening up a new raft of potential problems that include:

  • Difficulties breathing

  • Personal hygiene

  • Pain in the knees and back

  • Skin problems

  • High blood pressure

  • Hardening of the arteries

  • Blood clots in the heart and brain

  • Non-insulin dependent diabetes

  • Gallstones

  • Some types of cancer

  • Difficulties with mobility

The problems don’t just stop short at a general increased risk of mortality, however.

Being overweight and obese can also cause several psychological problems like a feeling of inferiority, often caused by discrimination.

If we look at our key business leaders few and far between, it has to be said are obese. This is despite Avenance’s findings that half of bosses are overweight.

Fat people it would seem fail to make it to the top.

An interesting case happened last year. A health physics monitor employed by the Sellafield reprocessing plant was dismissed by his employers because he was too fat to do his job. At thirty stone he was deemed too big to ‘complete tasks essential to his role.’

An extreme case may be, but it does illustrate the point that obesity is slowly impacting on our working lives and hence UK productivity. I can’t imagine that a case like this would have arisen forty years ago.

The problem, however, is not just restricted to the Western World. Cars and junk food are now replacing diets based on boiled rice and vegetables and bicycles are slowly being superseded by cars and mopeds.

Fat nation is slowly becoming a reality.

So what can be done? At the beginning of the year the Chief Medical Officer offered some health tips:

  • 1. Don’t smoke and don’t breathe others’ tobacco smoke

  • 2. Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg each day and cut down on fat, salt and added sugar

  • 3. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week

  • 4. Maintain, or aim for, a healthy weight (BMI* 20 -25)

  • 5. If you drink alcohol, have no more than 2-3 units a day (women) or 3-4 units a day (men)

  • 6. Protect yourself from the sun. Cover up, keep in the shade, never burn and use factor 15 plus sunscreen. Take extra care to protect children.

  • 7. Practise safer sex – use a condom

  • 8. Make the decision to go for cancer screening when invited.

  • 9. On the roads, THINK safety.

  • 10 Manage stress levels – talking things through, relaxation and physical activity can help

Confronting the obesity epidemic at the grass-roots still appears to be an issue of ‘social taboo’ though. Afterall while we wouldn’t think twice about lecturing our colleagues on the vices of smoking we may stop short at scowling at them for eating another slice of cake and it certainly isn’t the ‘done thing’ to berate someone in public for their size.

It seems, however, that the price we are paying for being so very English amounts to a slice off our profits.

The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service say that in 2003 the cost to business of absence was £11.6 billion with 176 million working days lost, isn’t it about time then that something was done? I know what you’re thinking. Not all absence is related to obesity. True. But surely the increased problems in sickness must in part be related to diet.

If things continue bosses may be lamenting not only the size of workers but also the bottom line.

Share your thoughts on this issue and tell us your top dieting tips by posting a comment below.

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