Obesity is a serious problem across the United States. Up to 42% of citizens suffer from obesity, up from around 30% at the turn of the century. The numbers suffering from severe obesity are also up, from 4.7% in 2000 to 9.2% today. Those shocking figures confirm a high number of people are now at risk of serious health complications, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of obesity-related cancer. That puts a huge strain on people in terms of medical costs – it’s believed that the annual cost of obesity in the country tops $173 billion dollars.
What of the cost to employers? That can vary, with one study suggesting absenteeism through obesity could cost employers up to $6759 per person annually. However, lost time is not the only impact obesity has on employers. Whilst it might not seem like an immediate health and safety concern, it is an area you need to pay careful attention to.
Issues Surrounding Obesity in the Workplace
Firstly, the health implications of obesity can result in decreased productivity and increased absenteeism, as we’ve suggested. Obese individuals often grapple with various health issues, and these conditions may lead to frequent sick days, reduced work efficiency, and diminished overall workplace performance.
Secondly, obesity can contribute to a strained work environment. Prejudice and discrimination against obese individuals, often rooted in societal stereotypes and biases, can manifest in the workplace, leading to lower morale and decreased job satisfaction. This not only hampers the affected individual’s career progression but also negatively impacts team dynamics and organizational culture. It’s also noted that an obese person is 37 times more likely to report instances of weight-based discrimination compared to non-obese employees.
Thirdly, you may have extra concerns to address around someone suffering from obesity. These could include concerns around ergonomics and the working environment and making special allowances for decreased mobility. The ongoing health concerns may also give you extra decisions to make in order to protect your employee’s wellbeing. Ask yourself the following questions – can employees safely use machinery? Are your office chairs, ladders, and assorted equipment suitable for the dimensions of the individual and their physical capabilities? Is your PPE sized in such a way an obese person can use it safely? These are some of the concerns you should have, and it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Remember, obesity is a disease, and the onus is on you to make sure your employee is able to perform their job safely and without risk.
The law is still not on the side of people suffering from obesity. Only Michigan has laws against obesity discrimination, whilst a handful of cities, such as San Francisco, also protect those with the disease. Sadly, those who are overweight still face bias in all walks of life, work included. It’s suggested that for every six pounds someone gains, their offered hourly pay drops by 2%. Weight discrimination is still very much a gray area under health and safety law and employment law.
How to Address Obesity in the Workplace
As a proactive employer, you may wish to address any issues before they reach litigation or complaints, and there are ways to do that. Firstly, it is important to remember obesity is a disease, and as such, you must approach solutions with compassion and care. Any problems obesity may cause you in the workplace are minimal when compared to the issues it causes those who suffer.
The key to offering help is to do so in a manner that includes everybody, not just those who are obese. If you were to stigmatize the sufferer in any way, it can exacerbate their problems. Instead, you should look to target a healthy living regimen across the employee base. That could include encouraging employees to embrace healthy living by recommending services, such as weight loss classes. By searching ‘weight loss groups near me’ you can recommend services out of work but close to your location to the entire workplace, not just those suffering from obesity. The key is to ensure that they’re offered these services as a collective and that it’s encouraged for everyone as a group activity. It can be packaged as a push to help everyone lose a few pounds, and post-holidays, it won’t make anyone feel singled out.
You can continue on that theme by implementing certain practices around your office or workplace that also feed into the idea of healthy living. Possibly remove the snack machine, have a work-sponsored canteen that promotes healthy eating, and maybe stop the mobile food van from pulling up in the car park. These are small tweaks that can be made to encourage healthy living. Each workplace will have something unique that can be added, removed, or changed to promote healthy living.
Playing into the weight loss workshops, you could also ensure that any out-of-work group events are based on a certain level of fitness. Rather than visiting a bar, workplace outings could be a hike or another wellness activity that’s not too intense to ostracize people with obesity but that promotes healthy living and contributes to easing the burden on the sufferer and the rest of the workplace.
Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and it does cause health and safety issues that, as an employer, you will need to address. By looking at the practical and implementing a structure that encourages good health across the employee base, you can begin to help anyone suffering take those small steps towards a better life.