Trimming the fat

by 06 Feb 2007

When research shows that obese employees have higher rates of absenteeism than their non-obese counterparts, it seems obvious that employers should encourage employees to lose weight. Teresa Russell talks with two organisations that have introduced weight loss programs and helped staff lose tons of weight literally

Just over a year ago, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published Obesity and Workplace Absenteeism among Older Australians – a survey of almost 10,000 employed men and women, using data from Australia’s 2001 National Health Survey.

Obese workers were found to be 17 per cent more likely than non-obese workers to have been absent from work as a result of illness or injury at least one day during the two weeks prior to being interviewed. The study concluded that absenteeism related to illness or injury associated with obesity may account for over 4 million lost workdays per year.

Obese people were also found to be 8 per cent less likely to participate in the workforce compared to non-obese people.

In a survey conducted by Peak Health of over 5,000 blue- and white-collar employees, 71 per cent did not meet the recommended daily dietary intake to maintain health, while 39 per cent did not meet the minimum physical activity requirements. Screening showed that 14 per cent had borderline to high blood pressure and 18 per cent had borderline to high blood cholesterol.

Jennifer Hancock, assistant director of nursing workforce and clinical projects at Austin Health in Victoria, says management has been highly focused on decreasing absenteeism and improving the wellbeing of its 6,500 employees for over two years. HR set up a Healthy Options program that included group personal training, a ‘quit smoking’ campaign and massage among its initiatives.

Hancock, who has shed 47 kilograms herself in two years, is now the co-ordinator of the organisation’s weight loss program, which was launched in June 2006. The program was initially available to staff at the AustinHospital and then rolled out to the other two sites at HeidelbergRepatriationHospital and RoyalTalbotRepatriationHospital. By November, the 235 members had collectively lost over one tonne in weight.

Tatiana Bresolin, HR Manager for Corporate Express in Victoria says that her organisation also introduced some employee wellbeing programs in 2006 to help address staff retention issues and to improve morale. Corporate Express employs 400 people at its Port Melbourne office and 10 per cent of its staff joined the weight loss program. They also held a very successful ‘quit smoking’ campaign and negotiated a 50 per cent gym membership discount for their employees at around the same time.

Convenient meetings

Hospital staff and Corporate Express employees undertake shift work and irregular hours. Meetings were timed at the hospitals to allow all three shifts to attend weigh-ins. Time with the weight loss provider is more of a personalised consultation at Austin Health.

Corporate Express runs two meetings each Tuesday – one from 11am to 12pm and the next from 12pm to 1pm. At both organisations, the provider charges by the hour – not by the numbers of employees who participate.

Funding and administration

Employees at both organisations paid for the weight loss program themselves. “I never wanted the hospital to subsidise the program, because if you pay for it yourself, you take ownership of it,” says Hancock.

Bresolin, who shed 22 kilograms in 2001, agrees that if the onus is on the participants to pay for it themselves, they are more likely to be committed to it.

Both co-ordinators said that it was a very simple program to administer, however, Hancock had some initial problems. “It was all looking a bit hard at one stage, because the price seemed too high. But we then got the payments to come out of people’s pay as a salary sacrifice and it made it very attractive,” she says. Hancock has set payments up as an ongoing debit.

Corporate Express added another dimension to the program. They offered 10 sponsorship coupons to everyone who joined. People inside or outside the organisation could sponsor staff for the first 21 weeks of the program. Every kilogram that was shed attracted $1 in sponsorship, which was donated to the Starlight Foundation. The total donation amount is now being finalised but Bresolin thinks it will amount to thousands of dollars. One employee has shed 20 kilograms already.

The staff canteen

The owner of the staff canteen at Corporate Express approached Bresolin a week after the weight loss program began. He wanted to know how to provide the “points” meals that his customers were asking for. Bresolin created a special menu using her knowledge of the weight loss program. The canteen now sells meals with certain “points” ratings that are compatible with the program.

The canteen owner at Austin Health met with the weight loss provider, a dietician and Hancock once the weight loss program began. Although the canteen doesn’t count points, Hancock says they do now offer healthy alternatives that are marked with a green sticker.

Improved morale

Bresolin says that people who commit to joining a weight loss program at work are very brave because they become subject to the judgment of their peers. Those who joined were really motivated. “Everyone was talking about the program and as people’s weight loss became obvious, compliments were flying between staff members,” says Bresolin. “People started making friends at work. Some people who were not popular had a chance to show a different side to themselves,” she says.

At Austin Health, some departments have joint weigh-ins and have found the program to be very bonding (see box). “Our staff have been so positive about it. I’ve had people thanking me for their weight loss. The only negative comment I have had is that one person didn’t want their colleagues to know that they were trying to lose weight,” says Hancock.

Communication

Bresolin stresses that it is vital to have careful communication around a weight loss program. “You must be very professional and careful in your approach. Make sure you don’t sound like you are telling people they have to lose weight when you introduce the program. They must also not feel they are being discriminated against,” she says.

Bresolin sent an email to all staff inviting them to a meeting to find out information about losing weight – either to drop a dress size before summer or to lose a serious amount of weight.

Corporate Express then ran a “Biggest Loser”award that was presented at their Christmas party. They also had a section in their internal monthly newsletter on weight loss success in order to keep it top of mind for the staff. Senior management fully supported the program. Bresolin says that was an important part of its success.

In practice

Name: Clare Williams

Position: Executive Assistant to the Director of Finance

Employer: Austin Health for the last 20 years

Age: 59

Joining weight: 85.2kg (13 June 2006)

"I've been trying to lose weight for the last three years - for three weddings! I had seen Jen Hancock and another colleague lose a large amount of weight. They were my inspiration to join, once the program was introduced at work. Five of us in Finance joined together. We all get support from the rest of the office, as well as from each other. Birthdays are not just celebrated with a cake, but now also with a fruit platter. Everywhere you look at work, people are losing weight and it has a flow-on effect.

I have lost 12.6 kilograms, with just 3.6 kilograms till I achieve my goal weight. We joke to my boss that between us we have lost 47 kilograms in finance - the weight of one full time equivalent. My husband has joined in the exercising and eats what I do. He has lost 7 kilograms.

Management gets a big star from me for introducing this program."

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