Workplace weight loss: fit to fail?

by |

Companies across the globe are cutting costs by implementing weight loss strategies for workers and in some cases penalizing them for their size.

Giants such as the New York Stock Exchange and American Express have recruited Weight Watchers to help employees shed pounds in an attempt to improve health and put a dent in soaring health care premiums.

Meanwhile Pepsi is drawing ire from union groups for brandishing the stick in their battle of the workplace bulge. Staff who are overweight or smoke are subjected to a $50USD a month charge. The charge is waived if the employee attends a smoking cessation or weight loss program.

In the U.S obesity costs employers approximately $73.1 billion per year in lost productivity, absenteeism and health care. In Canada the obesity rate has doubled since 1981- approximately one in four adult Canadians are now considered obese.

While the health implications of obesity for individuals are immense and the impact on the workplace undeniable, the causes of obesity are complex and it comes down to a typical chicken or egg scenario.

Obesity can be attributed to a medical condition, genetics or an injury that might restrict movement, but it can also be considered a symptom of an unhealthy work environment. A 2002 study found a high proportion of obese workers reported high levels of job stress, indicating a job with high demands – longer hours, less job control, work related stress – can be a significant factor in weight gain. Another study, conducted by Ostry in Australia in 2006, found a correlation between long working long hours  and a high BMI.

According to Estelle Morrison, director, health management for Ceridian Canada addressing obesity head on may not be the best solution.

 “If someone has had an increase in weight gain over the last few years or have begun to see the doctor more frequently it’s not really a manager’s role to address it, nor should it be. A targeted program on obesity might be considered offensive and it may be the wrong direction. Instead workplaces should start to create a culture that really puts prevention at the top of list.”

Weight is a tricky issue to address from a workplace perspective. While the performance of some overweight employees may be suffering due to health problems, for others their weight may not be an issue at all.

According to Dr Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network it’s important to consider the realities the individual.  

“Is the excess weight really affecting your staff’s performance?” he asks. “Obesity is a complex problem. It is not simply a matter of individuals eating more therefore becoming obese, there are a range of issues at play.”

Sharma says encouraging lifestyle changes rather than addressing weight directly, is a better way of tackling obesity.

“Don’t focus on weight,” he said “focus on improving health through increased physical activity and better choices. If the scales don’t change it doesn’t matter, the focus really should be on trying to promote healthy behaviors; taking a break for lunch, not eating at your desk providing healthy snacks, stress management and creating a culture around taking the time to eat healthy.”

Morrison says organizational culture must be in step for a wellness program to have an impact.

“It’s difficult to implement an effective wellness program at work when the culture is not wellness initiated. If you go to a meeting and you have a choice of donuts or croissants or you have vending machines full of junk food, your wellness program won’t work. You have to address the culture. Wellness programs play a significant role but it’s not the only piece that needs to be aligned.”

Obesity in the workplace is a complex issue that may not be best tackled directly. Consider the unhealthy habits your workplace might be encouraging and align the culture with your wellness program.


Top Legal and Benefits

Workplace weight loss: fit to fail?
Legal Eye: Your $200,000 Termination Risk
Expat benefits: do you have the right coverage?
Requesting a doctor`s note: be careful what you ask for



HRM Online forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions