Imogen Cardwell | Clinical Operations Director at PAM Group
Breaking the link between unhealthy eating and sickness absence
The UK’s soaring obesity rate is increasing health risks and driving up sickness absence in a way that employers can no longer afford to ignore.
The UK’s obesity problem is now so severe that the Office for National Statistics has launched an obesity tracker. This shows that one in four adults (25.3%) are now obese, putting them at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and at least 12 types of cancer.
Not only does this cost the economy £58bn a year (equivalent to 3% of GDP), it also causes employees to take an extra four days of sick leave a year. Making helping employees to break unhealthy eating habits a key priority for any employer looking to tackle skills shortages and boost productivity.
Unfortunately, simply telling people to eat more healthily or lose a bit of weight isn’t the answer. Or the great many people who want to lose weight would be having more success. Instead, it’s about creating a culture that breaks unhealthy habits in the following seven ways.
Seven ways to reduce nutrition related absence:
1. Share tips to make healthy eating easy and affordable
Steven Pearson-Brown, a registered nutritionist at our sister company ToHealth, says, “Most people want to be healthier, but assume that requires buying costly fresh food and making complicated recipes from scratch. When tinned, frozen and dried fruit and veg is just as healthy, as well as more convenient and affordable. While pulses, legumes and oily fish can make excellent alternatives to having chicken, lamb or beef with every meal.”
So he says, “Share insights on how to buy and use healthy and more affordable ingredients to make quick healthy recipes,” says Steven, “Which can be as simple as beans on toast on a busy night when they might otherwise be tempted to order take-away.”
2. Give people the opportunity to make healthy choices
There are a worrying number of workplaces that only offer pies and chips for lunch. Only have facilities to access chocolate and crisps at work. Or allow people to work through their lunch hour and extend their day in unhealthy ways so they don’t have time to eat healthily.
If you don’t give people the opportunity to make healthy choices, they will end up experiencing avoidable health problems. Even if you just encourage people to bring in something healthy from home and sit together away from their screens, this will go a long way towards encouraging healthy eating. As will encouraging home workers to take a proper lunch break to prepare something healthy and go outside for a bit.
3. Motivate employees to change behaviour
Instead of talking about weight loss, make sure your wellbeing communications focus on the importance of nutrition and making healthy choices. Most people are incredibly sensitive about their weight, and many will be amongst the 80% of people who have lost weight dieting only to put it back on again.
Explain that you want to help people to eat more healthily and affordably and encourage people to share recipes and tips and ideas with one another. You could also give them access to an expert nutritionist, via a 1:1 session or group webinar. To help them think about food in a different way and set some meaningful personal goals, to keep them motivated. As well as understand how focusing on nutrition will impact positively on any underlying condition.
4. Support those who are struggling
With over 100 hormones regulating our appetite, for many employees having the opportunity to make healthier choices isn’t enough. Especially if they have already started emotional eating to suppress negative emotions, such as loneliness or stress.
Offering access to emotional support, such as the mental health counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), can help. Giving them an opportunity to discuss any underlying issues and develop healthier coping strategies.
5. Help employees to become less sedentary
“It’s much easier to adjust your diet to avoid eating 500 calories, than it is to burn 500 calories through exercise. Making a healthy diet the most important thing when it comes to tackling the obesity crisis,” says Steven. “However, prolonged time sitting reduces metabolism, pushing our bodies into fat storing, instead of fat burning mode.”
“So, if your employees are sitting at their desk or workstation for eight hours solid a day, this will be significantly undermining their health,” he adds. Making it important to build flexibility into their day to allow them to do exercise or go out for a walk or take part in sports during the day. Or leave work on time so they can be active in the evening.”
6. Create a culture of health
Educate managers about the importance of encouraging healthy working practices, including proper lunch breaks. Encouraging them to lead by example to give others ‘permission’ to look after their health and find the time to eat and exercise each day.
Link health goals to people’s overall performance objectives and reward people with healthy options. Such as, a healthy food box or fitness vouchers, instead of alcohol or chocolates. Also consider introducing flexible benefits, that allow people to spend a set amount of cash on a range of health benefits.
7. Make healthy eating more affordable
Highly processed foods, high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fat, are on average three times cheaper than healthy foods. Making them more affordable and more widely available than fresh food such as fruit and vegetables.
However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Although the government recently decided not to tax junk food to make healthy food more affordable, employers who provide catering facilities can still do this. By increasing the cost of unhealthy choices and using this surplus to subsidise healthy choices, you can make them more affordable.