A growing problem

While many companies now recognise the dangers of stress to their workforces, few seem to be aware of the scale of problems posed by obesity among staff, reports Nick Golding

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Between 1993 and 2005 the percentage of adult men in England classed as obese rose from 13.2 per cent to 23.1 per cent, while among adult women the percentage grew from 16.4 per cent to 24.8 per cent, according to the NHS report, Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: England 2006.

James Kenrick, corporate healthcare manger at Hewitt, says: “Obesity is an underestimated and growing problem among UK employers.”

‘Stress’ and ‘absence’ are buzzwords that are currently far better understood among human resources directors and financial directors, especially in relation to the lesser-understood issue of obesity, because the clear link that stress has to absence levels has forced employers to sit up, take notice and invest in health provisions that can cope with the problem.

Yet obesity has the potential to have a similar impact as stress on the absence rates of an organisation according to Kenrick, simply because obesity can be a factor that leads to stress and in turn cause absence.

“Obesity can impact all areas of work. As people become less mobile they become less productive, and because they are less healthy they are more prone to taking sick days, so absence levels rise,” explains Kenrick.

Further, The Health Uncovered research from Legal & General, conducted by YouGov, reports that over a third of British employees put being overweight as a top-five health concern, while almost half placed not doing enough exercise in the same bracket, indicating that the problem of obesity at work is a real one and solutions will be gratefully recieved.

This is not something that Britain’s employers should ignore, or will be able to ignore because, according to one lawyer, the government will heap the pressure on employers to deal with the problem.

Chris Syder, partner and head of practice employment at Davies Arnold Cooper, confirms: “Obesity is a growing problem and the government has to do something about it. I can foresee that this is an issue that government is going to attempt to push onto the employer at some stage.”

However, advisers can offer solutions to corporate clients. Group risk products, if adapted in a way that suits the organisation, can play a huge role in easing the issue of obesity at the workplace.

At first glance it is difficult to see how products such as income protection or critical illness can offer any help in dealing with an issue such as obesity. After all, they are reactive health products, designed to deal with the aftermath of health problems.

Yet employers should be aware of the potential flexibility of some group risk providers, and the way in which group risk can also be used as a preventative measure.

Marion Ware, head of marketing at Canada Life, says: “There are additional services that you can buy, to add on to group risk products, that are more about prevention and that can deal with problems, whether they be stress or obesity. Providers really have to motivate IFAs to talk to companies about these important add-ons.”

It is wrapped up in health programmes that employers can find tools that will help them to tackle the problems associated with obesity and also help prevent the problem occurring.

Canada Life, for instance, offers employers the option of adding an employee assistance programme (EAP) to its group risk product – a benefit that provides employees with around-the-clock telephone access to counsellors who are on hand to discuss issues such as stress, divorce or debt, all of which can be related to obesity.

The EAP is a preventative benefit that can be extremely effective in getting staff to discuss issues that could lead to obesity, with counsellors.

For even more thorough counselling sessions, L&G can offer employers the option of adding face-to-face counselling to its group risk products.

Vanessa Sallows, underwriting and benefits director (group protection) at L&G, explains: “Face-to-face counselling is important because obesity is an illness, and what we should be looking at here is prevention rather than cure, and counselling can offer that.”

Health screening, gym membership, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and healthy vending machines are also optional extras with the Legal & General group risk product, all of which can be used to help manage employees with weight issues.

However, as far as having one group risk product equipped to deal with obesity issues on its own is concerned, there is little on offer. Kenrick believes that, until such a product is on the market, employers must rely on putting their own health provisions in place.

“My view is that there are a lot of risk products out there with some health elements added on, but to deal specifically with the issue of obesity at work? I don’t see anything out there yet,” he explains.

Those advising concerned companies on where best to invest their cash could take a longer-term view on the situation, outlining the potential savings on premiums associated with a healthy workforce.

A healthier workforce will mean fewer claims and less risk, which will result in lower premiums when it comes to group risk products, adds Kenrick.

However, suggesting that employers are currently doing nothing to cope with the issue of obesity would be unfair. Large firms such as Carphone Warehouse, Scottish Power, BT and Cadbury Schweppes have accepted their responsibility to keep their staff healthy and run in-house health initiatives for their employees.

These range from sessions educating staff on the pitfalls of an unhealthy lifestyle, to daily deliveries of fresh fruit designed to ensure that staff have the opportunity to eat healthily.

Also popular among British employers are the government-supported cycle-to-work schemes, whereby employees can pay for the loan of a new bike through salary sacrifice and make tax and National Insurance savings on that loan. Such schemes are set up to encourage more employees to be healthy and cycle to their place of work rather than driving or using public transport.

According to the Employee Benefits/AIG Voluntary Benefits Research 2007, almost half of employers in the UK now offer cycle-to-work schemes through salary sacrifice, on a voluntary basis.

To ensure that group risk becomes better equipped to cope with the errant health of the nation’s workforce, employers will need to see more evidence of how obesity links into well understood health issues such as stress and absence.

Paul Avis, corporate development manager at Ceridian, explains: “There is a massive amount of work that still needs to be done to get organisations to change their mindsets on obesity. We need more evidence-based work, specifically around the potential return on investment.”

As the data comes through, and finance and HR directors realise the true potential cost of obesity, there will undoubtedly be more work done by group risk providers on integrating wellness programmes into their products, and also more investment by British employers on these products for their staff. Advisers that can help employers meet this challenge now will be truly adding value.


In focus- Fat – an employment issue

“Bolt-on products such as an EAP or face-to-face counselling can be important preventative measures”

Obesity is a growing problem in British workplaces, as overweight employees are far more likely to be less productive and are prone to illness and injury, resulting in costly sickness absence

To remedy the situation proactive healthcare is required to encourage healthy lifestyles among employees and keep staff fit at work, and this could come in the shape of group risk products

Although group risk products like income protection and critical illness tend to be seen as reactive, “there are ‘bolt-on’ products that providers are offering that can offer a far more rounded healthcare package that can help cope with obesity”

Bolt-on products such as an EAP or face-to-face counselling can be important preventative measures where obesity is concerned, as issues can be resolved before they manifest themselves in a poor diet

As more data comes through that highlights the link between obesity, stress and sickness absence more organisations will start to invest in health products that deal with the problem of obesity


Attitudes to obesity in the workplace


  • An average of 57 per cent of all managers agree that employees who are obese are more likely to take time off work than those who are not
  • 76 per cent of organisations do not plan to offer any help in the form of advice or services to staff in order to combat obesity
  • 87 per cent of managers think that employers do not address the issue of weight at work for fear of hurting an employee’s feelings
  • 86 per cent of managers believe that legal implications would stop them from addressing obesity issues in the workplace
  • 63 per cent of managers think that an employer has a duty to speak to an employee about their health if they feel that productivity is being affected