Corporate Responsibility and Wellness – Is Obesity your Boss’ Business?

Corporate Responsibility and Wellness – Is Obesity your Boss’ Business?

I was delighted to hear last week that Simon Stevens, the new head of NHS England, has highlighted the role that business has to play in addressing the obesity crisis.  Having called for greater “upstream preventive action” on obesity shortly after starting the role back in June, Stevens’ language has hardened. 

Referring to obesity as “the new smoking”, he warned that it now represented a serious threat to the financial viability of the NHS.  Not surprising, given that the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes alone, strongly linked to excess weight, costs the NHS around £9 billion per year (an astonishing 10% of its entire budget). Prevention is always better than cure.  So when NHS spending on bariatric surgery starts to exceed that of national lifestyle intervention programmes, it is time to take stock.

Amongst the ideas to be presented this month in the NHS “Five Year Forward View” will be the introduction of financial incentives to employers to provide effective NICE-certified workplace programmes for employees.  Such initiatives could include running clubs, diet clubs, group weigh-ins or weight-loss competitions. Not everyone welcomes the concept.  Chris Blackhurst of the ’I’ newspaper responded to Stevens’ speech with an article titled “obesity is none of your boss’s business”.   Arguing that the proposals represented “an extra mound of red tape that they could well do without”, Blackhurst accuses Stevens of passing the buck to business.

Although reflecting the historically prevailing view, such an attitude is simply no longer credible.  Quite aside from the £29bn annual cost of sickness to UK business,  companies have a duty of care to their employees.  We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else.  It is naïve to suggest that the workplace environment and culture has anything less than enormous influence on our wellbeing.   Office workers are commonly expected to sit for 8 hours or more per day at their desks.  We are simply not designed to do this.  Recent evidence suggests that prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor to our health, that cannot be compensated for even by regular intense exercise. Progressive employers are already trialing potential solutions to mitigate this risk. Innovations range from exercise ball chairs and stand up desks to even more radical concepts such as treadmill desks. However, activity levels are only one part of the equation.

As someone who experienced 12 years in the corporate world, I am only too aware of the constant flow of sugary treats  when it comes to food in the office.  Colleagues would seize upon any opportunity to bring in cakes, biscuits, chocolates and sweets.  With offices becoming increasingly open plan,  practically every day someone in the room would have a birthday, a leaving do, or some other pretext to trigger the latest indulgence!  It takes a lot of willpower never to surrender to these omnipresent trays of temptation in a weak moment. 

Of course each individual is ultimately responsible for what goes in their mouth, but research studies into the influence of proximity and visibility of food on consumption volumes cannot be ignored.  The seminal work of Brian Wansink in this area has demonstrated that our consumption is significantly and consistently affected by environmental factors.  It is time to face the facts - in the modern world of sedentary employment, obesity has inevitably become your boss’ business. 

How progressive is YOUR employer in tackling these issues? Is your workplace making you overweight?  We would love to hear your thoughts on what improvements you would like to see in your office.  Please share your comments below. 

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