Lightening the workload

For all the complications it brings to personal and community health, the cause of obesity is simple. People become overweight when the number of calories they consume exceeds the amount they burn each day. Many work environments contribute to this imbalance, but some organisations are tackling the problem head-on, says Teresa Russell

For all the complications it brings to personal and community health, the cause of obesity is simple: People become overweight when the number of calories they consume exceeds the amount they burn each day. Many work environments contribute to this imbalance, writes Teresa Russell, but some organisations are tackling the problem head on

IN A 2004 telephone survey by MBF Australia of 100 of Australia’s top 500 companies, 95 per cent of respondents were either “very” or “somewhat concerned” about the potential health impact of obesity on their employees. A similar number agreed that the physical health of employees was important for the overall productivity of the organisation.

However, only 37 per cent of companies had a workplace health program to encourage physical activity and 50 per cent did not believe they were in any way obliged to encourage employees to become physically active.

Not only does obesity increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers, it also results in reduced mobility, less energy, fatigue, breathlessness and sleep apnoea. Recent US research also found that overweight people were subject to discrimination in employment decisions based on body weight, and were stereotyped as emotionally impaired, socially handicapped or possessing negative personality traits.

Australian Taxation Office

David Diment, the Australian Tax Office’s assistant commissioner for ATO people and place, says the ATO has a statutory duty of care to take all practical steps to protect the health and safety of its employees. “Staff play their part by managing their own health and keeping themselves informed about health issues that are relevant to them,” he says. “The Tax Office supports them by providing an active wellbeing program and encouraging them to look after their health.

The ATO launched the program in 2001. Managing obesity is just a part of the overall program, which gives staff access to yoga, pilates, tai chi, Bollywood dancing classes, relaxation sessions and tenpin bowling.

Two programs introduced to ATO staff that directly target obesity are Weight Watchers at Work and the 10,000-step challenge. Last year, almost 6,000 of its 25,000 employees participated in the 10,000-step challenge, a community-based health promotion program that encourages people to add a 30-minute walk into their every day activities. (www.10000steps.org.au). Teams of ten staff took the challenge until the combined team result was the equivalent of walking from Port Douglas to Hobart.

Some ATO sites run Weight Watchers at Work on a user pays basis. The combined weight loss of 15 participants at one Victorian site over a recent 13-week period was 100 kg. The participants use meetings to explore the particular challenges of losing weight at work. For example, how to avoid the vending machine, which selections are best from local sandwich shops, how to incorporate exercise into the daily routine, how to manage when you don’t get time for lunch and so on.

Although the ATO has a vision to be recognised as a leader in safety and health management, the motivation for these programs is not completely altruistic. “We know that our business performance and productivity can be enhanced by the application of our health and safety management practices,”says Diment.

Victorian Police Force

Being a member of any law enforcement agency brings with it significant health and safety issues. Shift work and high stress situations can have many negative effects on an individual’s health. The nature of the job can lead to poor eating habits and weight gain.

For over 15 years, the Victorian Police Force has had an active program to undertake compulsory health assessments and carry out heart disease risk assessments for sworn officers, with the service also available to its civilian workforce.

Duncan Brooks is based in the Dandenong area as one of seven health promotion officers working statewide for the Victorian Police’s Fitness and Lifestyle Unit. He says that the results of 160,000 assessments done by Victorian Police shows that the average Victorian police officer is slightly fitter than the normal population, but carries more body fat than average.

The motivation to introduce health and fitness assessments initially came as a result of OH&S concerns. “People who are fit and healthy have fewer sprains and strains and are less likely to suffer stress-related problems,” says Brooks. Alan Veitch, program development officer in the Fitness and Lifestyle Unit, adds that people who have healthier lifestyles enjoy work and provide positive motivation to colleagues.

Brooks says that when the assessments were initially introduced, the workforce response was initially fairly sceptical. “People worried that their assessment results would be linked to promotions and that the results would not remain confidential. Now most people accept it and do it without question every two years.”

Initiatives beyond the health and fitness assessments now include subsidised Quit Smoking programs, the inclusion of a gym at all new 24-hour police stations, and seminars on men’s and women’s health by Sally Cockburn (aka Dr Feelgood).

Late last year, a group of employees at the Dandenong Police Centre started a self-funded Weight Watchers at Work program. The group plots its progress, both as a group and individually. Ian Gillespie, acting inspector at Dandenong (see box) says the program has given him a much better understanding of what he is allowed to eat. “There have been no huge changes in my diet, but I’ve already lost 7.5 kg in six weeks.” Gillespie thinks it is great that he can get time to go to the meetings at work and says that even those people not involved in the program are taking an interest in weight loss.

Brooks says that once someone decides to lose weight, they are often amazed by how easy it is, if they just cut out junk food and do a bit of exercise. “As a health promotion officer, the best I can do is make staff aware of the need for dieting and fitness and exercise programs. I can’t be standing there at their fridge or get them up in the morning for a walk,” he says.

Low or no cost initiatives to combat obesity in the workplace

Provide information to encourage and support staff wanting to lose weight

Allow employees time to attend self-funded weight loss meetings on site

Introduce the 10,000 steps program throughout your organisation

Provide one piece of fresh fruit per day for all staff

Review food available in staff canteens and subsidise low fat foods

Encourage exercise by providing bike racks at work or an on-site gym, if your budget stretches that far

Watching the weight of Victorias Police

Name: Ian Gillespie

Job: Acting Inspector, Victorian Police (Dandenong)

Age: 45

Weight loss program: Weight Watchers at Work

Reason for participating: Wanted to lose weight and when this option came up, it made life a lot easier

Started losing weight: Mid-December

Exercise: 30 mins on walking machine nightly

Kilos shed: 7.5 kg in six weeks

Goal weight loss: 16 kg (8.5 kg to go)

Feeling: Much better, more energetic

Employer: Gives me time off to attend a meeting at work each Wednesday

Benefits: For every person in the program, and the whole organisation

Colleagues: Everyone is supportive. Even those not on the program take an active interest in progress.

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