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SA employers must help fight battle of obesity epidemic

Author
Gary Feldman
Category
Date
17 February 2023
3 min read

South Africa’s got an obesity problem – and it’s not only costing the country’s healthcare system billions of rands every year, but it’s also becoming a growing problem for employers, who are having to deal with lost productivity and absenteeism.

A study by the School of Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand suggests obesity is costing South Africa’s health system R33 billion a year – nearly 16% of all government health expenditure. It causes earlier death and is linked to a range of comorbid conditions including Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, many types of cancer, osteoarthritis, depression and anxiety.   

Ultimately, this rise in obesity-related conditions contributes to spiraling medical aid costs and premiums, with diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases among the most expensive conditions to manage.

We’ve seen a significant rise in obesity-related conditions in the past few years, and there are many reasons for that – individual genetics, psychology, and the harsh fact that unhealthy food is simply cheaper and easier than healthier alternatives. But as employers, we need to do more to drive education across all spheres of society about the negative effects of obesity.

Employers are grappling increasing levels of employee health issues, with obesity causing repeated – and often long-term - sickness absences. Numerous studies show that individuals with obesity miss more days of work (absenteeism), and work at less than full capacity when they are at work (presenteeism). 

So, what role can employers play in combating the scourge of obesity?

World Obesity Day recommends a three-step management approach for employers: understand obesity as a disease and a risk factor for other diseases; use best-practice to build healthy workplace environments; and to communicate with employees effectively and sensitively on the topic of obesity.

Practical actions employers can take to combat obesity in the workplace include:

  • Provide healthier options in canteens and on-site vending machines. 
  • Get their people moving. Create weight management initiatives in the workplace, or sponsor employees to take part in fitness and health challenges. Get staff to use the stairs.
  • Encourage their people to exercise. Global healthcare guidelines suggest people need 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week – and it doesn’t all have to be done at once!
  • Encourage regular breaks. Many people’s jobs involve sitting for a long time, like truck drivers, call-centre workers and most office jobs. Just moving for a couple of minutes every so often helps.

The fact is that employee wellbeing is not just a tick box exercise: it’s a real issue that needs to be addressed by South African employers. We’re seeing a huge focus on employee mental wellbeing, but we need to broaden that include lifestyle as well. Our people – and our country – need it.

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