What are employees doing to address obesity?

14Jul 16

Published in Forbes: By Karen Higginbottom

Obesity in the workplace in the Western world is an increasing concern, both for employers and productivity. Officially, more than one-third (35.1%) of adults over the age of 20 in the United States are classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The implications of a sedentary workforce shouldn’t be underestimated: Sitting is more disruptive to workplace productivity than cyber-loafing according to an Ergotron 2016 JustStand Index. Banking is a pretty sedentary profession, so how does the sector fare when it comes to supporting the physical well-being of its employees?

U.S. firms are more advanced in delivering well-being programs than their U.K. counterparts. Approximately, half of U.S. employers offer wellness promotion initiatives, according to a 2013 survey by RAND and larger employers are more likely to have complex programs.

So what are organizations doing to ensure the physical well-being of their employees? Twenty-nine percent of employers identify obesity as a significant issue for their company, according to a global 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work survey of 1669 employers in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Asia. The research found that two-thirds of employers offer gym subsidies, but only 18% of employers offer weight management programs. More than half of employers sponsor fitness challenges between locations.

Some financial institutions have on-site gym facilities and classes, comments Kirsten Samuel, managing director, employee well-being specialist for Kamwell. “Other things like cycle-to-work schemes are widely used by employers in this sector. There are more creative scheme coming in such as the introduction of ‘High Octane Rides’ in Barclays , where staff have the chance of getting bursts of activity from using exercise bikes in between meetings and other tasks.”

Wellness programs have been a part of the benefits package for quite some time, remarks Jeff Oldham, vice-president, Benefitstore at Benefitfocus. “However, some of the larger enterprises are incorporating more innovative programs to address the varied needs of employees and encourage engagement to augment the more traditional wellness programs like on-site flu shots and vaccinations, smoking cessation programs, health screening and nutrition solutions.”

Finance firms are also looking to partner with the wearable tech providers to supply their workforces with fitness gadgets like Fitbits to monitor physical activity – a good way of getting people to think about their levels of activity, said Samuel. “There are examples of some even going as far as to create internal corporate challenges where individuals and teams can compete against each other.”

Why does physical well-being matter in the workplace? There is a lot of data showing the links between stress, depression and weight gain. Chronic stress is implicated in the development of obesity, and prolonged chronic stress pushes up blood sugar, impacts on the immune system and has a wide number of metabolic effects.

The ways in which physical fitness and increased mental agility link to productivity and reduced sickness absence are recognized by large employers and employees alike, remarks Samuel. “Organizations are aware of the fact that healthy, happy employees can be a catalyst for high-performing individuals and teams.”

HR can play a vital role in developing corporate well-being programs, added Samuel. “It’s the job of HR to understand the mechanics of its workforce and the relationship between people and organizational performance. Health is part of the formal duty of care that employers have and that falls into the HR remit. More than this, HR is the function best equipped to make the important links between well-being and the broader business and people strategy and has the tools to leverage employer and employee buy-in to well-being programs.”

In the U.S., the focus on physical wellness has been accelerated by rising health costs and the new requirements of the Affordable Care Act, said Oldham. “It’s also proven to be an effective way to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism. However, HR is not just focused on physical wellness programs but is also looking for ways to address emotional well-being, mental health and financial wellness as physical ailments are often a symptom of a larger cause and other life stressors.”

Oldham added that regardless of what a wellness program is looking to address, it’s important they are inclusive for all employees and can be tracked alongside individual goals to show that they are actually helping to improve the health of employees.