If a quarter of employees are obese, it's not only their health at risk… your business may be in danger, too. We need to do more to tackle the problem – but so must ministers
Perhaps it's not entirely the government's fault that we are becoming a nation of obese people. Already around 25 per cent of us are grossly overweight – a figure that has tripled since 1980 – and it is expected that 11 million more will be obese within 20 years without urgent action.
The implications for businesses are clear and dangerous. If a quarter of your workforce are so overweight, they are going to live shorter lives than their healthier colleagues, they are more likely to have diabetes and heart disease, perform less well at work and spend more time in hospital and on sick leave.
Your business is at risk because the health of your employees is under threat. As a nation desperately needing cash to trigger growth, it is galling to read that the NHS spent £2bn last year dealing with obesity-related conditions and it estimates that the cost to the economy of obesity comes to a further £2.6bn.
There is no easy solution. Health secretary Andrew Lansley has called on businesses to do more to help tackle this impending time bomb and he's right to do so. But what can we do in our own companies? Medical cover and gym memberships for senior management are often provided though the people most likely to have the problems we are talking about are the least likely to take up these offers.
Wretched HR rules often stand in the way, too. We used to have a female member of staff who gorged herself silly so much that one of our regular customers congratulated her on becoming pregnant. I asked our general manager if we could offer her a way to tackle her weight issues but was told we couldn't because it could be construed as harassment.
The obvious ways we can make interventions is through measures such as taking out vending machines selling crisps, fizzy drinks and the like. If you have a staff canteen, ban the stodge you're more than likely to be dishing up at the moment. Make your employee of the month prize not a bottle of champagne but a voucher from organic food supplier Abel & Cole. And make your office Christmas party a sporting adventure rather than a booze-up.
As businesses, we can see the advantages of this approach. So why can't the government do the same? What health benefits do ministers offer civil servants, for example? I visit government offices and see lots of vending machines offering the offending items referred to above. Meeting desks are adorned with chocolate cakes and sugar-coated buns. So if they're not treating the problem responsibly, what chance does the rest of the country have?
There are too many half-hearted initiatives around. Consider saturated fats – in New York a ban was placed on any catering establishment using them because, first, they clog up your arteries and then patients fill the hospitals. But what did we do in Britain? We asked if caterers wouldn't mind too much if they could do the same. It would be awfully nice if they would but we entirely understood if they didn't. What a joke!
In the London borough of Tower Hamlets a report showed that there were 46 fast-food outlets for every school. Walk around them and you don't see a display of certificates saying they have banned saturated fats – they know that using them makes food such as fried chicken tasty for customers.
In New York restaurants must display information about the calorie count of their dishes. People thinking they are having a Caesar salad because it's a healthy choice will be staggered to find its calorific count is higher than that of a fair number of steak cuts. I'm not popular with industry colleagues for supporting this initiative here – they think it's impractical and off-putting. But unless we have it enforced upon us to provide this information to our customers, it just won't happen.
In Europe, too, there are initiatives ministers could learn from in terms of "fat taxes". The Danish penalise food companies using saturated fats and the French do the same for those making sugary soft drinks.
We are right to be told that our businesses can and must do more to ensure we have a healthier workforce but government, heal thyself first and millions of employees. And then tackle the unscrupulous businesses that get fat by making us fat because, sadly, when it comes to our health, we need to be saved from ourselves.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast www.roast-restaurant.com