OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

Tightening the Belt

A study down south, which finds obese employees cost companies about twice as much money on average as other employees do, highlights the consequences that obesity may have on the workplace.


A study down south, which finds obese employees cost companies about twice as much money on average as other employees do, highlights the consequences that obesity may have on the workplace.

The study, published in the May/June issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, reports that overweight workers have higher rates of absenteeism and claims for workers’ compensation, medical care and short-term disability. An employee who is not obese costs an average of $3,830 per year in covered medical claims, sick days, short-term disability and workers’ compensation, while a morbidly obese person costs employers $8,067. The findings are based on data from nearly 30,000 employees over a three-year period.

“I don’t think we fully understand the direct association of obesity and the impact on the workplace,” says Mary Forhan, assistant professor with the University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine in Edmonton and a member of the Canadian Obesity Network.

Hélène Charlebois, a registered dietitian and nutrition coach in Ottawa, says excess weight can be detrimental to workers with jobs requiring physical exertion, such as firefighting, policing or window cleaning.

It can also affect positions like those of a cashier or waitress. An employee who has to stand at a cash register for eight hours a day is “not going to be able to be at that job very long, because it is just physically impossible,” Charlebois says, referring to the strain on the feet, knee joints and ankle joints.

“It predisposes you to a lot of other problems,” adds Kim McClelland, a registered nurse and wellness coordinator with the Toronto Police Service (TPS). Obese workers take more time off from work and have more diseases. “They are more tired, they take more breaks, they can’t concentrate.”

Ian Janssen, Ph.D., professor in kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, co-authored a study published in 2011 that found obese workers have a 40 to 49 per cent higher risk of occupational injury. “Surprisingly, this related more to sedentary injuries that happen in more sedentary occupations,” Dr. Janssen says, citing repetitive strain and lower back pain as among the common ailments reported by the obese. “There is more increased likelihood of other illnesses and disabilities as well, even the flu. So that means persons with obesity are going to be potentially away from work more often.”

Obesity has been on the rise in Canada over the past few decades. In 1985, less than 10 per cent of the population was clinically overweight. By 2004, the level leaped to more than 20 per cent in every province and territory except British Columbia and Quebec, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2005, there were more than two million obese workers aged 18 to 64 in the country, 21 per cent of whom were older than 55. Men in the top-quarter income bracket were more likely to be overweight than other men were.

Equal Treatment

Forhan says the safety risks that obesity poses often depend on the job itself. “There are a lot of workers with obesity who actually could be very fit, strong and quite capable,” Forhan says. “When the risk starts to come in is when there is a disconnection between the person’s body size and shape and the workspace and demands of the job.”

An employee’s size might be incompatible with the required equipment or safety gear, and chronic health conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure could be dangerous in a job that involves physical exertion. So how can employers deal with this issue without being discriminatory?

“You need to be delicate, obviously, about the situation,” Dr. Janssen advises. “Just as you might accommodate somebody who is short or tall, you need to accommodate the person that might have a weight issue in the same way.”

Forhan agrees. “It is a matter of having a really good conversation with the employee about what their needs are,” she says, “in terms of being able to do their job safely.”

Dr. Janssen recommends making workplaces more health-conscious by allowing employees to stand during meetings, providing healthier choices in cafeterias and company lunches, offering subsidized gym memberships and permitting extra break time for exercise.

Charlebois believes that every employer should have access to a registered dietitian. “You should be able to take the receipt and put it through your medical insurance” — similar to claims for eyeglasses and dental, she says.

McClelland reports that the police service has a holistic nutritionist on staff. Other programs include educating police-force employees on the real cause of obesity, fatigue management and mental health.

“The more comprehensive they are, the more likely they are to have an impact,” Dr. Janssen says of corporate wellness programs, adding that staff feedback and evaluation of these programs are also important.

Whichever option an employer takes to address workplace obesity, McClelland says the focus should be on preventing and solving the problem, because “obesity is a symptom.”

Jeff Cottrill is editorial assistant of OHS CANADA. 

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