Trimming back lockdown weight

06 October 2020

How to help employees shed excess weight they may have gained during lockdown?

How did you do during lockdown? Did you get those jobs done round the house, dig your bike out of the shed, religiously tune into Joe Wicks every morning, even go 'dry Covid' for the duration? If so, well done. But for many of us, it is clear the weeks at home from March were something of a disaster when it came to diet, drinking and exercise.

According to a survey by King's College London and Covid symptom tracker ZOE, greater snacking, a lack of exercise and more drinking meant the average weight gain for most during lockdown was 1.6lbs - twice that as of Christmas - and some gained nearly half a stone.

Equally, a study in May by the Cambridge Weight Plan concluded more than a third (35%) of people had upped their alcohol, a quarter (24%) were comfort eating and 17% were doing less exercise. A similar poll by the jobs' website totaljobs in April found more than half (52%) were sleeping less well, 54% were less active and 58% were eating more than normal.

Government anti-obesity and cycling initiatives

All this gives added relevance to the government's announcements of an anti-obesity drive and plans to encourage more cycling, even if both are also being driven by the recognition excess weight can be a factor in increased risk of poorer outcomes from Covid-19. You could use your occupational health nurse or team to lead on communicating these various health promotion messages, or to monitor some basic health tracking metrics.

Obesity and overly sedentary lifestyles were, of course, problems well before the pandemic. Now, as workplaces reopen, what role can employers play in terms of helping, encouraging or nudging those who wish to shed those extra pounds gained during lockdown?

The first thing to recognise, emphasises Carmela Tucker, Director of SOH Vanilla - Occupational Health, a Somerset based Occupational Health Advisor, is that whilst there is a surge of announcements of an anti-obesity drive post lockdown any plans that an employer may have around health promotion messages including losing weight or increasing exercise should be done in a sympathetic but supportive way.

"Employees will be appreciative of any tools the employer can offer to support and encourage them to lose weight, especially the pounds gained during lockdown" she adds.

Here, then, are five practical ways employers can help.

1. Encourage more active commuting

In a post-pandemic working world where many are still nervous about returning to public transport and looking at alternatives such as cycling or walking, encouraging more active commutes may be something where employers are pushing at an open door.

If you are going down this route however, it is important to ensure you have the infrastructure in place to make riding to work a viable, and welcoming, prospect. This needs to include safe and secure parking but also changing facilities - which will now need to be risk assessed to meet Covid-19 protocols. The Health and Safety Executive has guidance here.

Offering a cycle to work scheme as a benefit may be another way to generate interest in and take-up of cycling. However, it is important to communicate the complexities of such schemes to employees, especially the fact they may not 'own' the bicycle at completion.

2. Make work more active (yet still socially distanced)

Workplaces are looking and feeling very different to pre pandemic. While it is imperative health and safety protocols are maintained, some elements of the "new normal" may in fact lend themselves to less sedentary working practices.

Lift capacity, for example, will probably now be restricted, meaning there may be an opportunity to encourage employees to take the stairs more regularly (especially if stairwells can be made more attractive to use). You could even make it a bit of fun by implementing inter-team competitions around the number of flights/stairs climbed, with prizes or incentives for the winning team.

Sit-down meetings are more difficult, but how about more socially distanced standup or walking ones? While the weather is still OK, might there even be mileage in holding some outside or in an outdoor space? Equally, given it is recognised Covid-19 transmission rates can be lower outdoors, there may be value in encouraging employees to get outside and be more active at lunchtime, especially if a proper lunch break is built into the working day.

3. Revisit your canteen and vending machine offer

On the subject of food, communal restaurants are now more restricted than pre pandemic. There may, however, still be scope for using the physical reopening of your workplace to revisit the healthy food options that you offer.

4. Be brave/proactive around health promotion

You may need to communicate the benefits of diet and weight loss programmes carefully, but it can still be done. One way is to frame your messages less around weight and more around improving general health, energy and productivity, as well as promoting respected resources, such as the NHS weight loss plan or Eat Well guide.

The links between obesity and health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure (and of course Covid-19) shouldn't be overlooked within your health messaging, and may be an effective way of kickstarting conversations, along with resources on, say, understanding BMI, blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

5. Using technology to help employees help themselves

Finally, employers can have a role to play in encouraging take-up of weight loss and exercise technologies, such as wearable activity trackers and step counters, exercise, diet or recipe apps and so on. Be aware, however, that if you offer this technology as part of a benefits package you may need to provide reassurance around how any data collected is used.

Bear in mind, too, that while such devices will not normally be liable for benefit in kind tax, there are tax, NI and reporting obligations around employers paying for sporting or recreational facilities for employees. You can find guidance here.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.