Obesity: An urgent focus for health promotion at work

bh in Brief

Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with more than 90 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. This heritage has given us experience and capabilities that also enable us to help people defeat obesity, hemophilia, growth disorders and other serious chronic diseases. Headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk employs approximately 41,700 people in 77 countries and markets its products in more than 165 countries. 



1 Obesity Update 2017. Available: www.oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm

2Janssen I. The Public Health Burden of Obesity in Canada. Can J Diabetes. 2013;(37):90-96.

3 World Obesity. Obesity as a disease. https://www.worldobesity.org/news/obesity-as-a-disease/

4 Obesity Canada.  2017, April. Report card on access to obesity treatment for adults in Canada 2017. www.obesitycanada.ca

5 Obesity Canada. n.d. Leveling the chronic disease playing field.  https://obesitycanada.ca/con-news/leveling-the-chronic-disease-playing-field-on-world-obesity-day/

 “Employers can help bring about change.”


Obesity is a growing threat to Canadian workplaces. It is estimated that from 2020 to 2030, the prevalence of obesity will rise from 25% to 30% of the Canadian population.1 As of 2006, the cost of obesity in Canada was $7.1 billion, including $3.2 billion in indirect costs.2 In the workplace, obesity is responsible for lower productivity caused by either absenteeism (days missed from work) or presenteeism (being present but working at less than full capacity) which are both more common for people with obesity. 

A new perspective

For employers, obesity represents a current and future workplace challenge. Even so, a new perspective on obesity offers a pathway to change as we are urged to think differently about obesity. In a position statement in 2017, the World Obesity Federation defined obesity as “a chronic relapsing progressive disease process.”3 Similarly, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has said that obesity is “a chronic medical disease requiring enhanced research, treatment and prevention efforts.” 4

These new definitions mean that we need to stop thinking of obesity as “a self-inflicted risk factor” for other conditions, with all the stigma and discrimination that comes with the idea that obesity is a life-style choice. Obesity Canada (OC) reports that, based on our current thinking, weight bias, stigma and discrimination are rampant, including in our workplaces.5 In fact, their infographic on weight bias, OC shows that 54% of adults with obesity report being stigmatized by co-workers and 64% say they have experienced weight bias from a health care professional. OC further reports that recent media studies indicate that 72% of images and 77% of videos stigmatize persons with obesity.

Healthy alternatives

Employers can help bring about change. A first step is to fully understand the challenges faced by people who have obesity, whether they may be described as  

  • Weight Bias – negative attitudes towards others because of their weight;
  • Weight Stigma – stereotypes and labels we assign to people who have obesity; or
  • Weight Discrimination – actions against people who have obesity that cause social exclusion and inequities.

In general, the effectiveness of health promotion depends on communication. It is critical, therefore, to avoid workplace language, images or behaviour that sends negative messages to employees with obesity and could act as a deterrent to involvement in wellness programs. Given that wellness is an active process that involves making individual choices, it is important to use a variety of strategies to address obesity and encourage employees to take advantage of every available opportunity for change and growth. 

More treatment options 

A second step in bringing about change is to ensure that benefit programs include effective treatment options. Employers offering wellness benefits and employees with obesity should know that OC has reviewed four treatment and management options for adults with obesity, described in the 2006 Canadian Clinical Practice Guidelines published in the CMA Journal:

  • Behaviour intervention with specialists and interdisciplinary teams.
  • Medically supervised weight-management programs with meal replacements.
  • Anti-obesity medications for weight management. 
  • Bariatric surgery. 

In each case, OC concluded that Canadians have little or no access to these treatments for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of professionals and a lack of resources and coverage under benefit plans.4

Steps to take 

Current weight-loss strategies with failure rates of over 95% perpetuate a vicious cycle of “yo-yo” dieting.”4 To check the rapid rise of obesity, both behavioural change and medical intervention are needed. Employers can step up with more effective wellness initiatives, consulting with employees living with obesity and credible experts in the field of weight management, tracking engagement and outcomes to see what works and what doesn’t. They can also press for extended healthcare coverage for allied health supports and anti-obesity medications. The threat is real. The need to focus on obesity is urgent. We have the tools. The time to act is now. bh



Categories: Disease Management