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‘Obesity crisis’ is making people too sick to work, warns IPPR

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Obesity is contributing to rising economic inactivity levels in the UK and is making workers less productive, says the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which is calling for government intervention to crack down on ultra-processed foods and create an “obesity-free generation”.


Areas of the country with high obesity rates tend to have high numbers of people who are not participating in the workforce, suggesting a direct correlation between obesity and economic inactivity, said the IPPR in its Scale of the Challenge: Obesity and the Labour Market report, published on 6 May.

Photograph: iStock/towfiqu ahamed

The report found geographic inequalities in obesity levels throughout the UK. Four out of five constituencies with the highest obesity rates were in the north of the country, researchers found, while four out of five constituencies with the lowest rates were in the south. In constituencies with obesity rates over 15 per cent, economic inactivity rates were over 45 per cent, said the IPPR.

The findings follow the release of figures in April by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which revealed that the economic inactivity rate for working-age people in the UK was 22.2 per cent in the period from December 2023 to February 2024. This is an increase of 0.3 percentage points, compared with the previous quarter, and is 1.7 percentage points higher than the pre-pandemic period between December 2019 and February 2020.

The rise was primarily driven by a record number of people who are not participating in the workforce because of long-term sickness, said the ONS.   

People living with obesity who are in employment are more likely to find that ill health negatively affects their work, according to a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 people that was analysed by the IPPR its report. The survey found that more than half of people with obesity said they had attended work while feeling unwell, and that their sickness had impacted their work.

“This can have a productivity impact – bad for both businesses and, given the link between productivity and living standards, workers,” said the IPPR in its report, adding that “persistent presenteeism” can also have long-term health consequences.

The IPPR wants obesity to be tackled as a “societal issue”, rather than as a matter of personal responsibility. It is calling on the UK Government to work with employers to create conditions that promote the health and wellbeing of workers, to crack down on ultra-processed food and take steps to make healthier food cheaper.

“The government’s laissez-faire approach to public health has been a failed experiment,” said IPPR senior research fellow Dr Jamie O’Halloran. “We need our institutions to step up to regulate unhealthy food, use taxes and subsidies to make the healthy option the cheaper option, and invest in the NHS, local councils and educations so that health can be the cornerstone of UK prosperity.”

Earlier this month, the UK Government announced that it would roll out a new “work and health support service” across 15 areas of the country, as part of its efforts to tackle economic inactivity. The aim of the service, known as ‘WorkWell’, is to help people with health conditions find a route back into work.

“This service will help tens of thousands of people, who will receive joined-up work and health support, tailored to their individual needs,” said UK Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins MP.

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‘Obesity crisis’ is making people too sick to work, warns IPPR

By Kerry Reals on 10 May 2024

Obesity is contributing to rising economic inactivity levels in the UK and is making workers less productive, says the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which is calling for government intervention to crack down on ultra-processed foods and create an “obesity-free generation”.