The touchy subject of obesity in the workplace

| October 26, 2018

Overweight workers are costing Australian companies hundreds of millions of dollars per year and employers are refraining from addressing their concerns about obesity due to a fear of sounding discriminative or being accused of “fat shaming”.

Some estimates have put the mounting costs of obesity to the Australian economy at a staggering $21 billion per years by 2025 with medical bills for related illnesses such as diabetes, lost production and staff turnover all weighing in at a heavy load for businesses to carry.

According to research conducted by national compensation firm Australian Accident Helpline, overweight workers are far more at risk of suffering a workplace injury than leaner, healthier colleagues.

One study revealed that 26% of obese males had reported suffering a personal injury compared to 17% of men within a normal weight range. For women, the risk of injury directly correlating to weight was even greater, with about 21% of obese females reporting an accident at work compared to only 12% of women within average weight categories.

“Feedback from industry indicated that most companies were aware of the impact of obesity-related issues on productivity and employee welfare and were eager to address the issue,” Australian Accident Helpline managing director Mr Liam Millner said.

“However, due to the sensitivity of the topic and a reluctancy to offend workers, less than 25% of employers were willing to offer advice to employees about healthy eating and recommended lifestyle choices.”

Common injuries and vulnerabilities associated with obesity include; acute overextension, high blood pressure and poor circulation, depression and a vulnerability to slipping, tripping or falling.

The consequences of these injuries can result in extended absence from work and, in more extreme cases, workers compensation claims brought against employers.

Injuries resulting from obesity are avoidable and businesses need to know how to address the subject with staff without being seen to be discriminatory or perceived to be personally attacking anyone.

Businesses, however, have a care of duty to their employees and should not avoid making staff aware of positive health benefits associated with a trimmer waistline as they could be saving lives and creating a more efficient workplace.

However, it is essential that any communication with employees addresses the entire workforce without singling out any person or gender group.

“An emphasis should be placed on encouraging staff to exercise and adopt better eating and lifestyle habits as a positive choice to reaping the benefits of a happier and healthier workforce,” Millner said.

“Small steps can make a big difference, so encouraging staff to walk up some, if not all, of the steps instead of taking the lift can be a good starting point. Reducing sugar intake in tea, or coffee is another positive health benefit to be recommended.

“More physically inclined workers can be encouraged to get back on their pushbikes and cycle to work, instead of adding to a bulging wallet and waistline sitting in traffic and adding to global Co2 emissions.

“Most gyms in your area will be willing to negotiate group discounts to new members and there’s no harm in incentivising your staff to enter charity bike, running and swimming events as individuals or in a team to boost company morale.”

Everyone wins from a slimmer and trimmer workforce, so the benefits to taking on the challenge of confronting obesity at work far outweighs the negativities.