Obesity impacts more than 800 million people around the world, with millions more at risk for developing obesity. The COVID-19 pandemic has awakened the world to the importance of collective public health, and we must foster this joint approach to address the obesity epidemic. Employers play a crucial role in this collective call to action.
To act in the fight against obesity, we must first understand it
Contrary to beliefs perpetuated by society, lifestyle is not the only factor causing obesity. It is a complex chronic condition driven by many factors, including those outside of an individual’s control, such as access to health care and treatment, life events, biology and genetics and environmental causes (e.g., access to healthy food or safe places for physical activity). Because obesity is misunderstood, those living with it often experience stigmatization, prejudgments and discrimination in the workplace, in the health care system and in society as a whole. This can impede effective treatment, which is more important than ever, as obesity is a major comorbidity for COVID-19, even with effective interventions like vaccines. Thus, the time is now to act to combat bias and stigma, with the goal of understanding and treating obesity as a disease.1
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines obesity as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.”
Obesity is not a new challenge, but recent events have exacerbated its many causes
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new set of challenges that have impeded the effective prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity. These include:
- Reduced physical activity and disruptions in daily commutes and routines;
- Increased stress levels impacting sleep2,3;
- Changes in eating patterns and meal routines, lack of healthy food options;
- Escalating family and childcare obligations;4
- Deferred and delayed care in medical treatments and primary care appointments5; and
- Increased screen time impacting employees’ overall mental and physical health and well-being.6
Obesity can have a detrimental effect on overall health
The health impacts of obesity are not limited to COVID-19; obesity has long been associated with numerous health conditions that can affect employees’ and their families’ mental and physical health, life span and ability to work.
Employees and their families who experience obesity may be at an increased risk for:
- Developing comorbidities such as diabetes and cardiac conditions;
- Complications from COVID-197;
- Mental health conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders (a study found that obesity can be associated with a 25% increase in the odds of developing such conditions8); and
- Social disconnectedness and loneliness (already a challenge due to the virtual and hybrid workplace; people with obesity also often experience challenges in social connectedness due to perceptions and stigmatization).
What Employers Can Do
Whether your company is adopting a fully on-site, a hybrid environment, or a fully remote workforce strategy, there are actions you can take to develop and implement more inclusive policies to support your workforce living with obesity.
- Do your research: Understand the root and upstream causes of obesity, the barriers that exist in getting support and treatment and how obesity impacts your workforce. Recognize obesity as a disease like other chronic conditions.9
- Tackle stigma by using ”people-first” language, identifying the person before the disease. For example, use the phrase “people living with obesity” instead of “obese people.” In addition, provide intentionally thoughtful and inclusive imagery.
- Take an inventory of health, well-being and medical policies and programs in all countries with a workforce, such as access to bariatric surgery offerings and holistic well-being programs, to determine if there is a need to add and/or enhance offerings.
- Bolster employee communications, including addressing local nuances, to ensure that employees and their families know what employer-sponsored interventions are available to them.
- Acknowledge the new global workforce challenges in today’s environment that impact social, physical and mental health and well-being. It’s more important than ever for employees to feel connected and supported.
For employers to foster a culture of health it is important to recognize where employees are in their health and well-being journey.
- The Global Landscape for Overweight and Obesity: A Guide for Employers and accompanying Infographic
- Podcast: Roots of Obesity: The Many Factors that Affect Our Weight and Global Efforts to Influence them for Good
- Podcast: What Doesn’t Work? Weight-based Blame and Shame
- Quick Survey Findings: Weight Management Benefit Programs
- 1 | CDC. Obesity, Race/Ethnicity, and COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 12, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/obesity-and-covid-19.html#:~:text=In%20a%20study%20of%20COVID. Accessed February 24, 2022.
- 2 | Wilke, J. A pandemic within the pandemic? Physical activity levels substantially decreased in countries affected by COVID-19. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(5):2235. doi:10.3390/ijerph18052235
- 3 | American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Web searches for insomnia surged at height of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. ScienceDaily. Published November 18, 2020. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201118141724.htm. Accessed February 24, 2022.
- 4 | University of Minnesota Medical School. COVID-19 pandemic has been linked with six unhealthy eating behaviors: Study shows a slight increase in eating disorders, one of the deadliest psychiatric health concerns. ScienceDaily. Published April 12, 2021. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210412114740.htm. Accessed February 24, 2022.
- 5 | Findling MG, Blendon RJ, Benson JM. Delayed care with harmful health consequences—Reported experiences from national surveys during coronavirus disease 2019. JAMA Health Forum. 2020;1(12):e201463. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2020.1463
- 6 | Wagner BE, Folk AL, Hahn SL, Barr-Anderson DJ, Larson N, Neumark-Sztainer D. Recreational screen time behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.: A mixed-methods study among a diverse population-based sample of emerging adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(9):4613. doi:10.3390/ijerph18094613
- 7 | World Obesity Federation. Data and case studies. https://www.worldobesity.org/resources/policy-dossiers/obesity-covid-19/data-and-case-studies. Accessed February 24, 2022.
- 8 | Simon GE, Von Korff M, Saunders K, et al. Association Between Obesity and Psychiatric Disorders in the US Adult Population. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63(7):824. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.7.824
- 9 | World Obesity Federation. World Obesity Federation confirms “Obesity Is a Chronic Disease.” Published May 10, 2017. http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wof-files/NCD18_Useful_Information_.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2022.
- 10 | Business Group on Health. Quick survey findings: Weight management benefit. Published October 6, 2021. https://www.businessgrouphealth.org/resources/quick-survey-findings-weight-management-benefit-programs. Accessed February 24, 2022.