Obese workers twice as likely to be long-term sick, study finds

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 09:40:17 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 09:40:17

Britain is ‘sick man of Europe’ with six in ten overweight or obese Obese workers are up to twice as likely to take time off sick, a landmark study has found

Britain is ‘sick man of Europe’ with six in ten overweight or obese

Obese workers are up to twice as likely to take time off sick, a landmark study has found.

The research – the first to provide a detailed breakdown of the impact of weight on productivity – shows how soaring obesity rates are driving a “sick note” culture and stifling the economy.

Experts warned that Britain’s record was among the worst of 28 countries examined, with six in 10 adults overweight or obese.

Findings from the mass study, which examined the habits of 123,000 workers across Europe, were published as the UK faces record levels of long-term sickness.

Researchers found that the most severely obese were 2.5 times more likely to have been off work for a week during the past year with sickness, compared with those of a healthy weight.

Even those who were overweight, but not obese, were 22 per cent more likely than slimmer workers to have taken at least seven sick days.

Last month, Rishi Sunak called for an end to “sick note culture,” warning against “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life” as he unveiled welfare reforms.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show 2.8 million people in the UK on long-term sick leave, up from 2.1 million before the pandemic, with around £50 billion spent on sickness benefits for people of working age.

Critics said the Government drive cannot succeed without drastic action to combat obesity, which is linked to a host of long-term health problems.

They said the UK was facing “very, very profound consequences” from becoming the “sick man of Europe” precisely because of a failure to tackle big public health threats, of which obesity was the greatest.

The study, presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice, found that the more people weigh, the more sick days they take.

Britain was among the worst of all countries analysed – with separate research showing it has the third highest levels of obesity across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.

The research is the first to provide a detailed breakdown of how sick days vary according to weight, revealing how the obesity epidemic is damaging productivity and driving people out of the workforce.

The authors said obesity-related health issues such as back pain, arthritis or heart disease stop people going to work and means people are “increasingly excluded from contributing to society”.

It comes as separate UK data show long-term sickness is now the main reason for women being out of the workforce, with an extra 500,000 women now economically inactive for this reason in the last five years.

In total, 1.54 million women fall into this category – the highest number since records began – with much of the growth due to conditions like back pain which are driven by excess weight.

The new study found that overall, women were more likely than men to be off work sick.

More than one in four adults  in the UK are obese, with the costs of excess weight estimated to cost the UK economy an estimated £98bn every year.

The new study, led by the Health Economics and Health Policy Research Group, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, Austria.

It looked at national survey data from a representative sample of 122,598 people, representing a population of 147 million working-age people across 26 European countries.

People who were overweight were 12 per cent more likely to have had sick days, and 22 per cent more likely to have had at least seven days off sick.

Those who were in obesity class I – meaning a BMI of 30 to 35 were 36 per cent more likely to have had time of sick. This rose to 61 per cent among those with a BMI between 35 and 40, while those who were beyond this point were 2.47 times as likely to be off sick.

Author Dr Thomas Czypionka said: “The heavier you are, you become hindered in your daily activity and this also influences your ability to be productive.

“Obesity also decreases your ability to work and to contribute to society in general.”

“The problem with obesity is that there are so many health consequences that branch from being obese: hypertension, diabetes, orthopaedic problems, arthritis, sleep apnoea and so on.

“Even being overweight increases the risk for these health consequences. In the UK over 60 per cent are overweight or obese. All of these people have increased health risks and need a lot of treatment.”

He said stringent measures were needed to tackle growing waistlines – including action to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Chris Thomas, director of the IPPR think tank, said: “Over the last 15-20 years, the UK has become the literal sick man of Europe. 

“The key factor has been our inability to tackle big public health threats, with obesity the number one threat.

“Poor health is now amongst the gravest fiscal risks the UK faces. People are falling sick and that means that they’re either leaving the labour market or their productivity is hit.

“Once you have a less productive and smaller workforce because of sickness, then you really suppress how much growth is possible. The UK has had perpetually poor growth now since 2008.”


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