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Can workplace wellbeing tackle the obesity crisis?

In Britain, we are in the midst of a pandemic. No, not that one. A different one.

Before you all rush to buy hand sanitiser and loo roll, it’s not an infectious one this time. And nor is it one that will require a daily address by Matt Hancock or result in some of us having to home-school our children.

But it is serious. In many ways, much more serious than Covid, in terms of its long-term implications and health impact. The pandemic we are referring to is the nation’s growing obesity crisis.

More than one in four adults and a fifth of children aged 10-to-11 in the UK are now believed to have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over which, together with a large waist size, is considered clinically obese. Just stop to think about that statistic for kids aged 10-11 – it's pretty scary.

A YouGov survey published last week to coincide with World Heart Day, revealed that Britons get less sleep, do less sport and are, on average, fatter than people in other countries. Only 29% of Britons do sport at least twice a week, far less than the global average of 43%. More than half of the Britons surveyed admitted they don’t eat any fruit every day and an even greater proportion (58%) said they don’t regularly eat vegetables, excluding those already included in pre-prepared food or meals.

More knowledge, but more unhealthy options

Our understanding of nutrition, and the availability of healthy alternatives, has grown enormously over the last 30 years, and yet our diet has barely changed over that time. According to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, which ranks different diets from different cultures on a scale of 0 to 100, diets in Britain have improved by just 1.5 points in 30 years. Despite now eating more vegetables and nuts than we used to, we are simultaneously consuming more red meat, sugary drinks and salt.

In May this year, a shocking report revealed that more than 42 million adults in the UK will be overweight or obese by 2040. The health implications of obesity are difficult to overstate. It can increase the risk of developing 13 different types of cancer, not to mention heart attacks and strokes. It can also lead to diabetes and associated complications including nerve damage, poor blood circulation, reduced mobility and chronic skeletal pains.

It also takes a toll on mental health, with obese people more likely to become depressed and suffer low self-esteem and confidence, and less likely to socialise. A bit of a recipe for disaster.

Does this effect the workplace?

Needless to say, physical and mental health issues inevitably cross over into the workplace. Research conducted by a health management journal in the US found that employees with an unhealthy diet were 66% more likely to have high presenteeism (being physically present but not being able to work and performing below normal capacity) than those who regularly ate whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Employees who didn’t exercise very much were 50% more likely to have high presenteeism than employees who exercise regularly.

The author of the Tufts University study, Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, points out that employers can do more to help solve the obesity problem. “Policies that incentivise and reward more healthy foods, such as… employer wellness programmes… may ultimately have a substantial impact on improving nutrition… around the world.”

But it seems that, globally, businesses are missing a trick that could help create a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce. Unfortunately, the role nutrition plays in managing personal well-being and dealing with workplace stressors often gets sidelined during conversations regarding workplace wellness, despite it being a key driver in dealing with chronic health conditions. Nutrition, with its transformative capabilities, can improve productivity and build personal resilience. A well-nourished body results in a happy demeanour, fostering individual well-being and performance, thus also impacting workplace wellness.

BuddyBoost Good Food is a workplace wellbeing programme that can have just such an impact. It is designed to help people to be more informed about making better eating choices. The outcomes are new knowledge, mood boosts and more energy.

Every day, for 26 days, people are shown daily bitesize, fun, multi-media content (videos and infographics) explaining the role of nutrition in wellbeing, the psychology of eating and ways to improve energy and mood through diet. The daily content has been provided by expert nutritionist, Jenny Tschiesche and is designed to inform and inspire people, whether you are an avid foody or a clueless cooker, it's relevant and accessible for everyone. Jenny sets participants a daily challenge and at the end of the 26-day programme people have a lot more knowledge about how they can help themselves to eat a little better.

BuddyBoost also offers a programme to encourage wellness through exercise. BuddyBoost Active encourages participants to get 26 minutes of exercise every day, from walking to yoga, running to gardening. The programme has proven results for both physical and mental health.

In both challenges, participants buddy up into supportive groups, and everyone taking part can communicate by posting messages and photos on the app’s community feed, which serves as a source of encouragement, inspiration and camaraderie.

The obesity issue is not going to go away until it is addressed by governments and society alike. And employers have a significant role to play in this. The benefits of having a workforce that is happier, healthier and more productive mean that businesses shouldn’t be asking whether they can afford to implement a workplace wellbeing programme, but whether they can afford not to.


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