Obese workers are more likely to miss work and clock up a higher number of sick days than healthier colleagues, with a study claiming employers will have to play a more prominent role in their employees’ eating habits.

Research into 540 workers in four multinational firms in Cork found that half of the participants were overweight (48%) and centrally obese (51%) and 15% were hypertensive, while almost 40% exceeded the daily upper limit of salt intake.

The study also found that the average number of predicted days absent from work was estimated at 1.8 days for non-obese employees, but estimated at 3.2 days for workers who were obese. It found that being in a managerial or supervisory position decreases the expected rate of absenteeism by 50%, while engaging in moderate levels of physical activity also cuts the expected rate of absenteeism by half.

Consuming a high quality diet cuts the expected rate of absenteeism by 36%, but “with respect to obesity, being centrally obese increases the expected rate of absenteeism by 72%”, it said.

“Central obesity was found to significantly increase the expected frequency of workplace absenteeism,” the study claimed.

The research, published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, shows that in a larger sample of 850 workers in the same four multinational companies, at the start of the study 70% were overweight or obese.

By the time of a follow-up at between three and four months, 80% of the 540 workers were still involved in the research while 64% were still participating at the seven-to-nine months follow-up. The majority of those in the original sample and in the final study group were male, aged 30 to 44, married, non-managers and worked during the day.

The initial research and the follow-up programme aimed at addressing employees’ eating habits while at work were carried out by academics at University College Cork, led by Fiona Geaney, and including Ivan Perry and Sarah Fitzgerald, among others.

The Food Choice at Work Study (FCW) was conducted between July 2012 and July 2013 and focussed on reviewing the food choices available to employees at the four workplaces, making changes to provide for healthier options, cutting portion size and providing and promoting nutritional information.

By the evaluation stage at seven-to-nine months the total daily fat, saturated fat, salt and sugars intake had been significantly reduced among the sample group, resulting in “small but significant falls in BMI [body mass index]”, but no significant changes in waist circumference and blood pressure.

Dr Geaney said more analysis was being conducted on the health of the sample group.


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