Comment: Weighty issues for business and health

Action is needed to end UK’s move to obesity, writes Finlay McKay

The UK is fast catching up on the US in terms of an overweight population, and it is in businesss interest to change that

The economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith famously noted that “more die in the United States of too much food than of too little.” If he were alive today he might well apply the same observation to the UK.

After decades of moral indignation about the situation on the other side of the Atlantic, the rise in an overweight and underactive society has now become the number one public health issue here in Britain. This was further underlined by a World Health Organisation (WHO) report earlier this month projecting that over a third of Brits (33 per cent of females and 36 per cent of males) will be clinically obese in 2030, compared to around a quarter in 2010. Of greater concern are the figures relating to the proportion of the population who will be overweight, anticipated to amount to 74 per cent of men and two thirds of women.

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Along with the huge impact on public well-being, the rise in overweight population also presents a clear and present danger for UK employers. The decision taken last year by the European Court of Justice (Kaltoft v The Ministry of Billund) ruled that obesity could, in some cases, be classified as a disability and that employers should ensure obese staff can work in an environment free from harassment. While many people accept it is not socially acceptable to make derogatory comments to an individual about their weight, in some situations it is now unlawful.

A recent Northern Ireland employment tribunal ruled that an obese worker was disabled and that unpleasant and offensive remarks in the workplace which had been made about his weight amounted to harassment. Employers should consider training staff to realise that this not acceptable. Shifting attitudes will inevitably take time as social norms won’t change overnight, especially when we live in a culture of media obsession over the appearance and dietary habits of celebrities.

The legal implications go much further than office banter. Here in Scotland the average weight of the male workforce has risen by three stones in the past ten years. Following a Civil Aviation Authority review of helicopter safety, operators may no longer carry passengers offshore if their body size is incompatible with push-out emergency exit windows. While this ruling may help oil firms employing offshore staff to steer around the issue, any workers who later become obese and can classify themselves as disabled may need to be considered for a more suitable onshore roles.

Preventing an increase in obesity will involve active intervention from a variety of sources. Larger employers who have the resources to focus on proactive measures are starting to recognise the benefits of investing in workplace schemes to improve the health of their workforce and reduce sickness absence.

Within the NHS, where the rising number of overweight employees is becoming a chronic issue, steps are being taken to address the problem. Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England & Wales, is keen for his organisation to drive forward a workable solution and has implemented a number of focused measures to do so, including serving healthy food in staff canteens; installing staff gyms in NHS premises and setting up prize schemes to reward employees who lose significant amounts of weight. While some of these ideas, like onsite gyms, may not be particularly innovative, the strong focus in addressing this issue highlights how seriously the UK’s biggest employer is about combating the growing problem of obesity. Meanwhile Tesco, another major UK employer, is also addressing the issue among senior staff, working with their partners Nuffield Health to assess the fitness and lifestyle choices of its directors.

Like our American cousins, we will likely need to be innovative in tackling obesity in the workplace before it becomes both socially and economically crippling across society. One US company has, for example, developed a digital tattoo that collects data on the wearer’s health and wellbeing which can be analysed with a relevant programme put in place to support the individual. It’s easy to see how this technology could be applied to proactively help in stemming the rising tide of an increasingly overweight workforce in the UK.

Employers must ensure they are aware of the growing legal issues around obesity – as the level of overweight Brits increases so too does the potential for unwanted legal claims.

Finlay McKay is a partner at law firm CMS