Impact of obesity on workplace productivity leads to call for change

Our work and food systems are creating a generation of overweight workers with damaging implications for UK health and productivity, according to a new report

Millions of people across England with obesity are seeing their weight negatively impact their work, according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

To counter damage to both the economy and people’s lives, the report, ‘Scale of the challenge: Obesity and the labour market’ urges the UK Government to commit to creating an obesity-free generation. The approach it should take, says the IPPR, is through building a healthier food system – including a crackdown on ultra-processed foods.

The UK has the third highest proportion of people with obesity in the OECD, affecting one in four adults and costing the UK economy an estimated £98 billion every year.

Unequal impact

Poor public health in England is substantially impacting both the size of the workforce and people’s productivity. However, this is not felt equally across the country. Four out of five of the worst constituencies for obesity and economic inactivity are in the North, while four out of five of the best are all in the South.

Constituencies including Wansbeck (North East), Redcar (North East), North Durham (North East), Blackpool North (North West) and Sunderland South (North East) all have obesity rates of over 15 per cent and economic inactivity rates of over 45 per cent, researchers found.

More than three in ten adults have obesity in the most deprived parts of England compared with close to two in ten of adults in the least deprived.

In addition to barriers to economic participation, people living with obesity who are in work are more likely to find their health negatively impacts their work, partly owing to a higher risk of becoming sick. More than half of people with obesity (55 per cent) reported attending work while sick and that their sickness impacted their work, according to analysis using YouGov data. This is equivalent to 2.2 million people over a four-week period.

A societal issue

The report underlines that obesity is not an individual problem but rather a societal issue deeply rooted in poverty – and accentuated by our work and food systems. Indeed, because of their current work-life balance, 37 per cent of workers say they rarely or never exercise as much as they would like; just 15 per cent cook and eat healthy meals; and only 19 per cent plan meals in advance.

The IPPR report argues that for too long, the UK Government has focused on individual responsibility when it comes to obesity, but this approach has failed to improve the health and prosperity of the nation.

Polling for the report found that around half of the public supports increasing taxes (52 per cent) and regulation (59 per cent) on ultra-processed food and drink manufacturers – compared with less than 10 per cent who want to see taxes and regulation decrease. Tackling this epidemic would be good for public health, good for the economy, and good for levelling up, the report concludes, prompting the IPPR to call for government action to deliver an obesity-free generation, through introducing policies such as:

  • fixing the food system, by using taxes and regulation to make the healthy option the cheaper option;
  • using government procurement contracts to ensure ultra-processed foods are not served in schools and hospitals; and
  • working with employers to create conditions that promote the health and wellbeing of employees.

‘Poor public health is holding back the UK economy, and obesity is playing a significant role,’ says Dr Jamie O’Halloran, senior research fellow at IPPR, who argues that health can be the cornerstone of UK prosperity. ‘The poorest regions across England are feeling this epidemic the worst. This is not the fault of individuals. The Government’s laissez-faire approach to public health has been a failed experiment.’

Read the full report, ‘Scale of the Challenge: Obesity and the labour market’, here

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