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Should employers be involved in helping employees deal with obesity?

pear on a dietIs it an invasion of privacy for employers to get involved in the process of helping employees lose extra weight so they can be healthier? Should it be mandatory for employers from a health and safety perspective to require some type of fitness and nutrition management program in the workplace? Could an increase in education regarding fitness and nutrition lead to improved employee health and consequently improved productivity in the workplace? Or could the pressure to lose weight affect employees’ self-esteem in a negative way? Is it unfair for employers to put pressure on employees to lose weight? Is it discriminatory under human rights legislation to require someone to increase their general health?

It has been estimated by some that approximately 20–50 percent of all adults have a weight problem, which can lead to many health hazards like heart attacks, strokes and diabetes (and associated complications). In fact, many health care practitioners are concerned by the risks.

The Government of Canada has done a study that concluded the dramatic increase in weight problems among Canadians over the past 30 years has created an epidemic. The document, “The Obesity Epidemic in Canada,” is worth a read.

I found it a bit disturbing; the study revealed that in 2004, approximately 6.8 million Canadian adults aged 20–64 were overweight, and an additional 4.5 million were obese.

What do these terms mean? A man is considered “overweight” when his body weight exceeds the maximum desirable weight for his height, and “obese” when his body weight is 20 percent or more over this desirable weight. A woman is “overweight” when her body weight exceeds the maximum desirable weight for her height, and “obese” when her body weight is 25 percent or more over the desirable weight.

These measures are based on the body mass index (BMI), which compares an individual’s weight in relation to his or her height.

The government study concluded that the health problem has translated into a large economic burden, reaching an estimated $4.3 billion annually.

What causes weight problems?

There are many factors:

  • Diet — those who ate fruit and vegetables less than three times a day were more likely to be obese than were those who consumed these foods five or more times a day
  • Physical activity — those whose leisure time was sedentary were more likely to be obese than those who were physically active
  • Marital status for women — women who were widowed were significantly more obese than men of any marital status
  • Education — those with no more than secondary (high school) education had significantly higher obesity rates, and the obesity rate among women who had some but had not completed all post-secondary education was significantly higher
  • Financial status — men in lower-middle-income households were less likely to be obese than were those in the highest-income households, and for women, those in middle- and upper-middle-income households had significantly elevated obesity rates, compared with women in the highest income households
  • Chronic medical conditions — there were strong correlations between excess weight and high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, and a high BMI was a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes
  • Other factors such as genetics, metabolic processes and endocrine dysfunction — however, these causes are relatively uncommon and they make up a small number of those who are overweight and obese; most causes are related to lifestyle factors (inactivity and poor diet are the two most important contributing factors to excessive weight gain)

Another factor that is also very important is sleep quality. Researchers have discovered that the amount of sleep and the quality of sleep may impact one’s hormonal activity tied to appetite. Not getting enough or not getting a good quality sleep can cause weight gain. Why? When you don’t get enough sleep, it drives leptin levels down (you don’t feel as satisfied after you eat), and causes ghrelin levels to rise (your appetite is stimulated so you want more food).

What’s more, chronic stress can lead to excessive levels of cortisol in the body, and this can disrupt healthy sleep patterns, which brings us back to the importance of sleep quality.

If that was not enough, poor sleep has been linked with heart attacks, heart disease and stroke, other factors influencing obesity.

In light of the economic drain on the health system as well as the drain on employee productivity and employee group health policies, should employers get involved?

It seems to me that there are a lot of programs for kids through school phys-ed classes, after-school programs and even through family tax credits for childhood physical activity programs; but there is not enough out there for adults who want to be healthier and more productive. It is almost as if physical exercise and nutrition in adulthood are completely undervalued. It is disturbing how few people get the proper amount of exercise per week or put the right things in their grocery carts at the store (sometimes I think we have we forgotten about the Canada Food Guide and the US Food Exchange).

What do you think? Is it too much of an intrusion into an employee’s privacy for employers to create a mandatory wellness program involving fitness and nutrition training? Would it constitute discrimination or harassment based on a prohibited ground under human rights legislation to require this? What about employers not hiring employees unless they are willing to participate in the employer’s wellness program? What if it was made to be a fun thing, like having company sports teams and province-wide tournaments? What about having a person visit and conduct some relaxation sessions so people can chill out and get the sleep they need to stay healthy?

If the lifestyle causes of obesity are addressed, wouldn’t it be better for everyone, including employers?

I ask these questions because I just read an article that caught my attention; RCMP officers have an obesity rate of about 24 percent, and the national police force is working to make police officers more fit, trim and ready for duty with programs that encourage healthy exercise and nutrition habits. It could be argued that in that line of work it is more important, but, on the contrary, I think it is important for everyone…

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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