Not retiring: Obesity and the impact on productivity

A new report looks at the links between obesity and productivity and says employers could play their part in improving the country’s health.


A report out this week from the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests a correlation between obesity and economic inactivity as well as that obesity affects the productivity and wellbeing of people who are in work. It’s yet another angle on the health and economic inactivity issue that has driven a lot of recent media headlines and announcements about benefits crackdowns as well as support for those with musculoskeletal problems to get back to work.

The report makes clear that it is not aiming to shame people who are obese. What it is looking at is how obesity can be prevented, given the UK has the third highest proportion of people with obesity in the OECD, affecting one in four adults.

The report states that often the cause of obesity – in particular the rise in obesity in recent years – is working conditions, changes in the built environment and the UK’s ‘broken food system’. It says polling for its report shows the public want government intervention and “a break from failed policies focused on individual responsibility”. It recommends building a healthier food system – including a crackdown on ultra-processed foods, working with employers to improve health and working to improve access to health treatment.

Increasing workloads can lead to people doing back to back meetings, sitting at their desks to eat and not effectively moving much during the working day, which may include overtime. Sedentary working can result in health issues, including musculoskeletal problems if working conditions don’t support people’s backs. This can in turn lead to periods of economic inactivity and inactivity generally which can be exacerbated by long waiting lists for health treatments. Work overload generally can also lead to more snacking, eating on the run and grabbing something that is carb-heavy to keep you going. It can also result in greater stress, which can lead to poorer health outcomes. Financial insecurity due to pay that hasn’t kept up with living standards and job insecurity can lead to people doing more than one job or taking on more hours.

While work is not the only cause of obesity, it is certainly in the mix and a greater focus on good work and manageable workloads – taking a step back to see what people can actually do in their contracted hours rather than piling up the tasks – is good for everyone and in the long term makes for greater productivity. The issue is how we all work together to tackle this, not through a punitive approach, but through understanding the positive ways we can all improve the health of the nation.

*Pic credit: the National Institutes of Health, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and Wikimedia Commons.

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