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The Real Cost of Obesity at Work

on Monday, 10 September 2012. Posted in Office Ergonomics, Occupational Health

Large person at desk

Article by Ross Thomson (aka Sympathetic HR Manager)

Oscar (O.C.) or better known as Oscar Office Chair, was complaining to me recently about his increasingly heavy work-loads and the longer working hours that he has had to endure over the last few years. He is now beginning to show the signs of exhaustion. Like any good HR Manager, I asked him for evidence and for suggestions on how to improve things. To help me here he shared some entries from his personal diary…

Oscar’s Heavy Workload Diary

Diary entry Monday 7.30am: Good morning Lee – nice to see you having such an early start to the working day. Take a seat…Hey steady on there….you said you were going to start that diet this weekend….I don’t think so!!!

Diary entry Monday 10:15am: Okay at least now I can have a break and recharge my air cylinder. Come on Lee get up and stretch…..oh no!! please don’t just sit there and do the emails….for goodness sake at least go and get a glass of water. Give me a break will you!!

Oscar’s SUGGESTION: Even small but regular breaks away from your chair all add up to extra calories burned during the day. Even a walk up and down the stairs to the tea room is a good start.

Diary entry Monday 11.30am: Great idea getting this software to initiate micro breaks. Now time for a good stretch and a breather…..what do you mean you’ve deleted that program??!!…I used to so look forward to that big back extension stretch!!

Oscar’s SUGGESTION: Doing regular stretches releases muscle tension that tends to build up during periods seated inactivity.

Diary Entry Monday 12.45pm: Finally relief. Lunch time and I can take a break. Thanks Lee. Go and get some good exercise and fresh air. See you at 1.30pm. Phew…at last!!

Diary Entry Monday 12.55pm: I don’t believe it! Look Lee it’s a beautiful day outside…no excuse for you to bring your burger and coffee back in here and sit and surf the net for the rest of your lunch break!! You’re really beginning to stress me out!!

Oscar’s SUGGESTION: The first law of Thermodynamics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Instead energy is converted from one form to another. During exercise, the chemical energy from food intake is converted to mechanical energy. Physical activity is vital for counterbalancing the energy stored from food intake.

Diary entry Monday 3.15pm: I hate this time of the day!!...I am getting sick and tired of the crumbs from the Salt and Vinegar chips messing up my nice fabric cushions. Mind you, they are not as bad as the gooey drips from the Toffee Bars. That stuff really gets stuck in my covers.

Oscar’s SUGGESTION: Mid afternoon can be a time when the body starts calling: “More Sugar! More Sugar!” Try and resist those sugar cravings and go for some great fruit options, or some of the Low Glycemic Index Foods. For more information see the University of Sydney website:

Diary entry Monday 6.30pm: I really don’t care anymore! I have supported you for more hours today than is in my contract. By the way didn’t you promise me you were going to leave on time today and do the walking circuit on the way home before it got dark?

Oscar’s SUGGESTION: Finding a buddy that is also keen to exercise can help with your commitment to keep a regular exercise appointment. 

After surveying this evidence there is no doubt about it, Oscar was under a lot of stress from his heavy work load. He made some really great suggestions for change too! However, I wondered if the situation was the same for the rest of my work-force? Oscar had done his research and was able to fill me in here

How big is the obesity problem? Check out Obesity statistics

Oscar explained that no matter how you look at it, obesity is a growing problem in New Zealand and overseas.

The 2002/03 New Zealand Health Survey reported that:

  • One in Five New Zealand adults were obese.
  • Obesity in New Zealand adults over 15 years old has increased to 21 percent up from 11% in 1989, and 17% in 1997.

Researchers in the United States report that:

  • Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese.
  • the heaviest Americans have become even heavier the past decade.

How do you work out if someone is obese? Calculate BMI!

Oscar explained that the most common method for measuring obesity rates is by an index called the Body Mass Index (BMI). Body mass index (BMI) is defined as your body weight (in kilograms) divided by your height (in metres) squared.

What are the big bad health risks of obesity? (Other than stressing out your chair?)

obesity and health

Being obese causes an increased risk for developing a number of serious and potentially fatal health problems, including:

  • High Blood pressure, hypertension - One-third of all cases of high blood pressure are associated with obesity. High blood pressure is twice as common in adults who are obese than in those who are at a healthy weight.
  • High blood cholesterol - 50% more likely to have elevated blood cholesterol levels.
  • Diabetes Type 2 - non-insulin dependent accounts for nearly 90% of all cases of diabetes. Researchers estimate that 88 to 97% of type 2 diabetes cases diagnosed in overweight people are a direct result of obesity.
  • Congestive heart failure - obesity increases the risk of congestive heart failure, a potentially fatal condition in which the heart muscle weakens, progressively losing the ability to pump blood.
  • Heart disease - heart attack, congestive heart failure, sudden cardiac death, angina or chest pain, and abnormal heart rhythm is increased in persons who are overweight or obese.
  • Stroke - There is a link between obesity and stroke; this is particularly the case for people whose fat is situated predominantly in the abdominal region. Overweight people are more likely to have high blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, but these associations are not the only explanations for the greater stroke rate.
  • Gallstones and gallbladder disorders.
  • Gout - the condition may develop in people with obesity incidents are remarkably higher, Gout is strongly associated with obesity.
  • Osteoarthritis - Obesity may be a major factor in the development of osteoarthritis, particularly of the knee and especially in women.
  • Some types of cancer -such as endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon.
  • Complications of pregnancy.
  • Poor female reproductive health - examples would be menstrual irregularities, infertility, irregular ovulation.
  • Bladder control problems - such as stress incontinence.
  • Psychological disorders -such as depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and low self- esteem.

Gosh, What to do about obesity? How can I encourage staff to have a healthy life?

After Oscar explained all this to me, I became concerned for both my staff and our business. Times are tight economically and if our staff were struggling with obesity, they will also be likely to have less energy and more absenteeism. This is not good for them, nor the boss who I was supposed to represent!

Cartoon coach

Oscar explained that in simple terms obesity is generally all about an imbalance between our energy input (i.e. our food intake) and our bodies energy output (i.e exercise and movement). He suggested that I educate staff on what represented a good balance of the two. The most important thing to remember is that even small changes can have a dramatic outcome over a period of time! As a result I have decided to start a Wellness Program at work.

Oscar said that the best advice I can give an individual staff member who is concerned about obesity is to go and see their Doctor. This person may want to ask the Doctor about their weight and the effect it's having on their health. From there it may mean reviewing the types of food they are eating and the type of life- style they are living. This may also mean engaging the services of a Personal Coach or Nutritionist or joining up with a local sports club or fitness centre.

Oscar was thrilled that I took the time to listen to him. He was even happier that I wanted to do something about Lee’s obesity. At the close of our interview he reminded me of those (apparently) famous words spoken by

Pablo Picasso: "Action is the foundational key to all success.”

Oscar is so right!


Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.


Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal, K. M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307(5), 483-490.

University of Otago and Ministry of Health. 2011. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Tips, training and resources

Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars such "Standing Up to Stress" and "Being a Happy Computer User" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.

Ergonomics: Consider providing staff with standing desks. Joyworkz can complete ergonomic workstation assessments to help you identify the best hard-ware for particular staff.

A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.

Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the range of free Alsco Heart Health posters that encourage staff in healthy workplace practices.

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