Opinion

Should employers crack down on obesity in the office?

4 min read

31 May 2019

If I was spotted whipping out a tape measure to check the exact waist circumference of my workforce, you’d think I’d gone mad. But the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) is urging employers to gain a better understanding of obesity in the office. But how involved can employers get?

Of course, a caring employer should always take an interest in their staff and offer help and support whenever possible, especially if someone is experiencing mental health problems. But keeping an eye on folks’ weight is going a bit too far. Does the IES now expect bosses to keep their eyes peeled for signs of a bulging beer gut, unsightly back fat or possibly chafing thighs?

Real Business readers may think I’m going a little overboard, but there is a serious message here that small and medium business owners have many responsibilities concerning their staff – some would argue far too many – but being responsible for their calorific intake and a poor exercise plan isn’t one of them.

Should employers be responsible for an employee’s physical health?

I accept this independent not-for-profit organisation is somehow trying to make a vague-but-valid point, but I’m not convinced the responsibility for tackling obesity lies with the boss.

We have laws against discrimination in the workplace and I accept that people can feel self-conscious or suffer from a poor self-image.

I’m sure the same can be said of many aspects of life. I’ve previously mentioned in this column the crazy situation in China where the Communist Party reintroduced mandatory exercise sessions twice a day in state-owned companies.

One dictated its staff must take a minimum of 180,000 steps a month – the equivalent of 62 miles! For every 1,000 steps they fall short, they lose ten yuan – just over a quid – from their wages.

China says employers must crack down on employee obesity, are they right to do so?

Meanwhile, another company is enforcing a 10,000-step daily target. Those who fail must perform punishment push-ups.

The IES argues that almost seven out of 10 men and six out of 10 women in the UK are affected by obesity and it insists it’s not all about salad-dodging – but that “socio-economic” factors are playing an increasing influence.

– Granted, more people are leading sedentary lifestyles, stuck at a desk all day.

There’s also been a huge expansion in the ‘takeaway culture’ while more of us are gawping at the telly or glued to a computer screen.

What can UK SMEs do?

But your average SME owner can’t take a leaf out of the Chinese (red) book and dictate to their people what they can eat and how much exercise they must take. Employees can be a positive influence.

Here at Pimlico, I run a subsidised staff canteen, which has a host of healthy eating options (as well as cracking bacon sarnies) and then there’s our state-of-the art gym and various exercise sessions, including circuit training.

I have made these facilities available to my people and would always encourage them to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing, for a happy worker is a productive worker.

UK employers can care about employee wellbeing – but they mustn’t get too involved

But I’m not going to order them to exercise, it’s un-British and I would be pilloried across the land for such a hard-line attitude.

In addition, most small business owners don’t have the facilities or the spare cash to spark a fitness craze amongst their workforce.

The best they can do is ensure people take their agreed breaks and if they do have a vending machine, replace the meat pies and sausage rolls with healthier options.

People must also take responsibility for themselves and their health. Otherwise, if IES gets its way, the tape measure might have to come out!