Target obesity in the workplace, say business leaders

Business leaders in Northern Ireland are calling on the government to target the workplace to help tackle obesity.

With about 59% of adults either obese or overweight the annual cost to the economy is estimated at £370m.

Many people who work spend the bulk of their day either behind a desk, at the wheel of a car or in an office.

The organisation, Business in the Community, said government must target where people spend most of their time and that is at work.

Director Tanya Kennedy said there needed to be more joined-up thinking.

“Simple initiatives where weight loss is brought into the workforce are effective,” she said.

“You don’t have to wait to go home. It’s made easy; you are with colleagues, you’ve got moral support and that’s good for the person the business and the overall economy of Northern Ireland.”

The international drinks firm, Diageo, has offices in Belfast and is one of a growing number of businesses who are running schemes to help staff shift the pounds.

Among them is 39-year-old Alan Larkin, who after managing to put some bad habits behind him, has shed 5 stone.

“It’s the convenience things that get you,” he said.

“That call into the garage in the morning for the large cappuccino, bar of chocolate and maybe a bacon and egg soda – it’s far too easy to get into bad habits.

“This was a challenge, it showed me that I could lose weight.

“Losing weight has been amazing I’d started to have pains in my knees at the height of my weight, they have disappeared, my breathing has improved and my wife says my snoring is a lot better.”

Diageo has pledged to donate £2 to charity for every pound lost by staff.

Lynn Graham is a human resources manager with the firm said they were helping to educate employees.

“We get people who have higher energy, are more productive at work and they have an opportunity to think about what motivates them and what they enjoy doing,” she said.

About 260,000 working days are in Northern Ireland due to people staying off work with obesity-related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes even backache.

The Belfast software development company, Allstate NI, has used the government’s cycle to work scheme to buy 550 bikes for staff. It has also built a cycle-cage to house them safely in the city centre.

It has cost thousands of pounds, but managing director Bro McFerran said there should be other incentives so companies can do more.

“They should also encourage employers to do the same thing by putting in showers and helping people who not only want to cycle in, but run in or walk in, and I think it is important that they do that as well,” he said.

Other organisations like the public transport company, Translink, encourage their staff to combine walking with using public transport.

They have also signed up to the Business in the Community’s action on health pledge providing diabetes risk assessments and general check ups for staff in work.

Some others offer discount at gyms or fruit Fridays replacing voluptuous cherry scones with platters of fresh fruit instead.

The message that Business in the Community wants to spread is that a fit and healthy workforce is a productive work force and employers in all sectors must play their part in preventing not only couch but office potatoes.