The World Health Organization describes the prevalence of obesity as an epidemic – and New Zealanders are taking out the Bronze medal in the ongoing race to be the world’s heaviest nation.

Obesity is associated with a wide range of health risks – and it can also have a significant negative impact for businesses. Learn more about obesity in the workplace in New Zealand, and the Dos and Don’ts of supporting health and wellness at work.

What is Obesity?

Obesity is defined as an excessively high amount of body fat in relation to lean body mass. 

Obesity Health Impacts & Risks

Obesity is associated with a long list of health conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Ischaemic heart disease (IHD)
  • Stroke
  • Several Common Cancers
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Reproductive abnormalities

As obesity also puts added strain on joints, the number of New Zealanders needing knee replacements is expected to skyrocket over the next 20 years – with researchers noting much of this is to do with the country’s alarming obesity rates.

Obesity in New Zealand

New Zealand has the third highest adult obesity rate in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), behind only the United States and Mexico.

Obesity rates in New Zealand continue to rise, with around one in three adult Kiwis (over 15 years) being classified as obese, and one in ten children. In 2015, 1.1 million New Zealanders were considered clinically obese but by 2038 that could be two million.

A 2018 Otago University report published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health showed the average Body Mass Index (BMI) of New Zealanders increased from 26.4 in 1997 to 28.3 in 2015. The report estimates that, if this trend continues, New Zealand’s averageBMI would exceed the obesity threshold of 30 by the early 2030s.

Researcher Dr Ross Wilson from the University of Otago’s Centre for Musculoskeletal Outcomes Research at the Dunedin School of Medicine stated that high BMI has now “overtaken tobacco as the greatest contributor to health loss in New Zealand”, which emphasises the public health importance of the research findings.

The Impact of Obesity on Businesses

Numerous studies have been conducted globally to quantify the impact of obesity in the workplace. Key findings show:

Obese employees will often need to take more time off work – both short and long term – because of associated health conditions.

Obesity can affect the productivity of a workplace. Because an obese employee’s health may be worse, and they may be more likely to suffer from issues such as back problems or sleep apnoea – meaning that, even if they aren’t taking time off work, ‘presenteeism’ can be an issue, as their health conditions may affect their ability to perform productively.

Both absenteeism and presenteeism can cause significant workplace costs for businesses. One study concluded that an organisation with more than 1000 staff members could expect to face upwards of $245,000 annually in lost productivity due to employee obesity.

Obesity & the Workplace

While it’s all well and good for employers to bemoan the negative impacts of obesity on their bottom line, it’s important to note that the relationship between obesity and work is complex. Routines and behaviours at work – particularly given that much of modern work is sedentary – can have a substantial impact on lifestyle and wellbeing.

It’s clearly not the job of employers to make judgements or pass comment on the size and weight of employees – especially when work can often play a major part in influencing eating and exercise habits.

Instead, encouraging exercise and healthy eating among staff members should form part of a far broader initiative to promote staff health and wellbeing. Employers can do this in many ways – from introducing walking meetings and cycle-to-work schemes, to offering discounted gym memberships or providing only healthy foods onsite in cafeterias and vending machines.

Supporting Health & Wellness at Work

While it can be uncomfortable talking to employees about topics such as obesity, studies show that wellness initiatives can boost morale, productivity and performance at work. Developing a well-rounded ‘wellness strategy’ in the workplace facilitates these kinds of conversations without making employees feel uncomfortable, or employers and HR teams feel as though they’re finger-wagging.

Want to help your workforce make better choices and move into sustainably healthy routines? Consider ways in which your organisation can provide opportunities for staff to (a) eat a healthy diet, through accessibility, promotion and incentivised cost, and (b) get more exercise throughout the workday.

In developing your organisation’s plan to push people towards better health and wellness outcomes, it’s vital to take care not to alienate, discourage or even harm employees by following the simple Dosand Don’tsoutlined below.

DO Encourage Healthy Choices & Physical Activity

Your employees spend most of their time at work – so it’s important to foster a workplace culture and environment that encourages healthy behaviours. This may include offering healthy food choices, or simply encouraging employees to get up and walk around at regular intervals – which studies show can actually increase their productivity as well as their physical fitness. 

To create a more activity-friendly workplace, consider installing standing desks and holding standing and walking meetings. Something as simple as moving water coolers, rubbish bins and printer stations away from desks helps encourage more movement. 

DO Think Like Your Marketing Team

Exercise and healthy eating can be a hard sell to employees, so communicate information about health and wellness initiatives in ways that encourage positive action. Place messaging about wellness in strategic areas like the foot of the stairs or on elevator doors to encourage exercise. Use gamification to challenge employees to a day without sugar or an activity scavenger hunt. 

DO Implement a Total Wellness Approach

Wellbeing is multidimensional – incorporating physical, social, emotional and financial factors – so it’s important that workplace programmes address multiple aspects of wellbeing. For example, a company touch football team can cater to employees’ social and physical needs. Look at the whole picture, and seek staff feedback to get a feel for what is going to engage them most and meet their needs best.

DON’T Make Broad Assumptions About Health

Health is not one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to remember that – although obesity can cause or exacerbate other health issues – some individuals may actually be “healthier” at higher weights.  

Encouraging staff to lose weight across the board, without considering their individual health profile, has the potential to lead to other health issues, so consider the unique needs of individuals.

DON’T Force Staff to Participate in Programmes 

There is still a great deal of stigma associated with obesity, so it’s vital that your organisation supports employees when they want to make healthy choices, without forcing them into programs they are unhappy about participating in. 

Demoralizing staff through enforced health programmes can impact productivity even more negatively than obesity, so take a gentle but inviting approach for best results and employee buy-in.

DON’T Focus Solely on Weight Loss

Competitions around weight loss can be dangerous, so avoid this kind of incentivising and gamification. Not only can these kinds of competitions alienate employees who really need support – they can foster unhealthy attitudes to food, nutrition and wellness, and have the opposite to the desire effect. Instead, as mentioned above, focus on a more holistic approach to wellness as whole. The goal should always be health and wellness, as opposed to kilograms or BMI.